Taking care of elderly is a rewarding profession for these women
Growing older is a part of life, albeit one that many of us look to with a combination of fear and trepidation. We worry about our health, quality of life, finances and other issues that accompany the golden years.
The women in this month’s feature have devoted themselves to alleviating some of those concerns for seniors and their families. Whether it’s providing them with help around the house, assisting them with their specialized medical and dental needs, creating an active community in which they can live or simply hanging out with them and sharing a cup of coffee, these women are devoted to the demographic they serve. While they admit that there are certain challenges related to dealing with the senior community, these women are in unanimous agreement that serving this segment of the population is a privilege. The stories they hear, the life lessons they learn and the friends they meet all add up to more than just a career for them — it’s a calling.
Geriatric Care Manager
AA Care Services
Watering our plants, walking our dogs, trips to the grocery store … these things are all a part of daily life that many of us take for granted. For the elderly, however, something as simple as getting dressed in the morning can require assistance. It is at that point that many families choose to place their elderly relatives in an assisted living facility, sometimes against their wishes. Helen Trowsdale, a registered nurse, wanted to keep that from happening. Although she referred patients to nonmedical home health care agencies, she says that she began to notice that many of those agencies had no medical oversight and lacked knowledge of the life changes that occur in the lives of this segment of the population. “I thought I could do it better and provide a higher level of care,” she states emphatically.
Helen opened AA Care Services in 2009 to provide nonmedical services to seniors and adults living at home who need assistance with everything from personal care to transportation. Now with two locations, AA (which stands for “always available”) services San Antonio, New Braunfels, Austin and the surrounding communities.
“Our goal is to help them live in their own homes and adhere to their own habits and routines for as long as possible,” explains Helen. “It’s an intervention to give them more quality time at home and allow them to live out the lifestyle to which they are accustomed.”
AA Care Services is not Helen’s first foray into the world of elderly care. Prior to this, she owned a Medicare home health agency and a private home health agency. By the time she opened AA Care Services, she had a very clear vision of the services her company would provide. The concept is relatively simple: A caregiver makes a home visit to meet the senior citizen and the family, assesses the individual needs that are required and develops a care plan of the services that will be provided. Those services can range from assisting with personal grooming, to preparing meals, driving to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping and anything else that makes life easier and more manageable for the senior. A self-described “people person,” Helen considers the care giving a labor of love.
“You get to enter into the life of someone who has usually had a long and notable career, or has overcome obstacles, raised large families and dealt with highs and lows,” she explains. Over the years, she and her team have worked with a woman who was a WWII spy, along with a man who, with three Purple Hearts, was the most decorated colonel in the United States. “These people are fascinating,” she exclaims.
Helen is so fascinated by this demographic, in fact, that she makes a point to interact with seniors in her down time as well. An avid traveler, she engages with the seniors she encounters, listens to their tales and blogs about their experiences. “I met one couple that are 92 years old and they still go out dancing,” she recalls.
An active individual herself, Helen walks two miles a day three to four days per week, exercises at her local gym and is an active member of several organizations, including Toastmasters, the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). She encourages people to stay active and maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to enjoy a higher quality of life. “Remain physically active for as long as you can, and eat healthy foods,” advises the RN. “It makes you better able to function both mentally and physically.”
If there is one downside to Helen’s line of work, it is the challenges that arise from family dynamics. Too often, she finds that children will place their elderly parents into retirement homes against their will and make all of their decisions for them. In these situations, Helen tries to work with the children and help them to understand that they still need to listen to and respect the wishes of their elderly parents.
“Just because they have gotten wrinkles and gray hair doesn’t mean that the person inside isn’t still there,” she says. “These people should still command dignity and respect simply because they are human beings.”
Helen enjoys a close relationship with her only daughter, who works with her in the business, handling the bookkeeping, invoicing and other financial aspects of the company. As she looks ahead at her own twilight years and retirement, Helen, a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, plans to spend as much time as possible traveling between her two homes and spending time in the communities, getting to know the people that reside there. “I can make a friend in an elevator,” she laughs.
What she will take with her from her experiences in serving the elderly are life lessons. The most important one she has gleaned so far?
“Try to live in peace and harmony, and don’t hold grudges,” she advises, adding that life is short and she has seen too many families torn apart by disagreements. “Forgiveness and being merciful to others is very important.”
Dr. Sarah Dirks, DDS
Geriatric Dental Group
As a member of the faculty at UTHSCSA Dental School and the director of the geriatric dental clinic, Sarah Dirks noticed that there was a gaping hole in private dental practices. Namely, no one was serving the seniors. “The frail elders had nowhere to go in the community, so they would call the dental school,” says the Nebraska native. “I realized there needed to be a private practice that served our senior citizens.”
Recognizing the need, Sarah opened the Geriatric Dental Group nine years ago to address the special concerns of this population.
“This is the greatest generation who grew up without good dental care,” explains Sarah, adding that there were not the options available to patients that there are today. “The filling materials weren’t as good, and back then teeth were pulled, while now we are able to save them.”
But when it comes to dental care for the elderly, it isn’t just about the teeth. There are many other factors that must be dealt with, and Sarah has set up her practice to make sure that the experience is as pleasant and convenient as possible. For example, many of her patients take blood thinners, so Sarah has set up a machine to check the Coumadin levels right in the office. Another differentiator is a wheelchair lift that allows patients to remain in their chair for the entire exam.
“It makes it easier on them because they don’t have to transfer to a dental chair,” says Sarah. “We are the only full-service geriatric dental office in San Antonio to offer the wheelchair lift.”
Smaller but equally important considerations include things like punctuality, so that those with specialized transportation don’t have a wait time, fully accessible restrooms and a daily mobile dental service for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The latter is an especially relevant service. An article in the New York Times reported that nursing home elders are not getting their teeth brushed every day. Sarah, who was quoted in that article, says she finds that inexcusable. “It’s a huge issue that is such a simple thing,” she says.
Sarah special orders “magic toothbrushes” for her patients to make oral care easier. These highly effective brushes have rounded bristles to clean all surfaces of the tooth at once. “These will get even the most uncoordinated patient’s teeth clean,” she explains.
These little “extras” are just a few of the ways that Sarah goes above and beyond to take care of her patients. She is actively committed to their dental health and well-being and serves on several national organizations, including the Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors Healthy Aging Committee. “We have oral care advocates from all over the country who get together to come up with better access to dental care for frail elders,” she says.
When she isn’t busy attending conferences, sitting on boards or seeing her patients, this mother of three grown children relaxes by walking and listening to classical music, but her patients are never far from her mind. She is always looking at ways to make their experience more comfortable, researching ways to help them save their teeth and exploring new advances on the horizon. One of the most exciting advances to Sarah is the finding that elders can tolerate surgical procedures and dental implants that have been available to the younger demographic. “Dental implants make the difference in the ability to eat or not eat in elders,” explains Sarah. “I recently had a 103-year-old patient get them, but he did it for cosmetic purposes.”
Sarah says her practice continues to grow at a rapid rate, but as busy as she is, she still finds the work incredibly rewarding. “It gives you a real purpose,” she says happily. “I am filling a need, and the patients are so grateful and tell us every day how they feel like they are more than just a number in a dental chair.”
Dr. Phallon Doss
Doss Audiology and Hearing Center
If you’ve ever seen someone’s eyes light up when they hear a sound for the first time, then you will understand why Dr. Phallon Doss has devoted her career to making the world a more joyful place for the hearing-impaired.
A San Antonio native, Phallon says that, from taking sign language in high school to studying deaf education at Texas Women’s University, she has always been drawn to helping the hearing-impaired. She briefly considered a career in teaching the hard of hearing, but after discovering her interest in the scientific part of the process, she pursued her doctor of audiology degree from the University of North Texas. She began her career in the highly specialized area of interoperative monitoring of neurosurgery patients before opening her own practice one year ago. Today, she specializes in helping senior citizens regain not only their hearing, but also their lives.
“Sometimes people become depressed and socially isolated because they cannot hear or communicate,” she explains. “Once that changes, over time you see them lighten up and get back into the activities that they enjoy.”
Unlike other audiology centers that are simply hearing aid dispensaries, Phallon’s practice is a full-service clinic. With the science and education to treat hearing loss appropriately, all of the testing is done on site, and all hearing aids and accessories are fitted and purchased on location as well. It is a very patient-focused approach that takes into account not just the physical aspects of hearing loss, but the psychological ramifications as well.
“Hearing loss is a natural part of the aging process, and that can be difficult for some people to accept,” she says. “There is a stigma surrounding hearing aids and old age, but we are working to change that perspective.” How? Technological advancements have resulted in smaller, more discreet hearing aids, for starters, coupled with connectivity and accessories for iPhone compatibility that make additional Bluetooth adapters obsolete.
Add a celebrity endorsement from the Seattle Seahawks’ Derrick Coleman, and suddenly people aren’t quite as uncomfortable broaching the subject of hearing loss with their doctors. “Derrick Coleman has been a great advocate for reducing the stigma surrounding hearing loss, and that’s exciting,” says Phallon.
Passionate about working with her senior patients, Phallon extends her care of this population to the community. Even with a toddler and a baby on the way, this busy woman finds time to volunteer with the Schertz Senior Center, calling bingo and taking birthday cakes to the facility once a month for celebrations.
“There is so much to be learned from our elders,” she says fondly. “They have so much wisdom, and they are a fun group to work with. Some come into my office just to have coffee and chat with my staff.”
Through her personal approach to patient care, Phallon is able to develop relationships with her seniors and get a feel for the specific communication difficulty that each patient is having. She learns their history, the environment that they are in on a daily basis and their personal communication goals. From there she is able to make the appropriate recommendations. “The biggest challenge in my profession is telling people something that they just are not willing to accept yet,” she says.
But once they do accept a diagnosis and take the appropriate measures, the rewards for both patient and doctor are amazing. “A lot of people don’t know what they are missing because the hearing loss happens so gradually,” says Phallon. “It is so great to see people get excited about the little things that they are able to hear again.”
Principal Partner, Wedgwood Senior Apartments
Change is a part of life, but that doesn’t make it any less scary — especially when it involves a change in your home or lifestyle. That’s why, when Entrada Partners purchased the Wedgwood Senior Apartments last year, principal partner Mandy Williams took it upon herself to work personally with the residents to make sure the transition went smoothly and that no one felt displaced.
“I wanted them to feel like someone was holding their hand through the process, rather than just telling them about it,” says Mandy, adding that the previous property owners were not on site. “Our company feels that it is important that I am on the property to hear and address the residents’ needs. It shows them that we care.”
Mandy, who graduated from Baylor, relocated from Whitney, Texas, to San Antonio in order to focus on Wedgwood, which is one of two properties that Entrada Partners own in the Alamo City, and the only senior facility. When they acquired the 50-year-old property in August of 2013, it was, in Mandy’s words, “a little neglected. Our goal as owners is to rejuvenate the property,” she explains. “It has such a strong history, and we want to bring an era back to the residents.”
To accomplish that, millions of dollars of improvements have been and continue to be made to the facility. Cosmetic upgrades, including full exterior paint, new furniture in the lobby and new carpet in the hallways, have helped to restore the building to its former glory, while a renovated pool, new fitness center, updated game room and a new movie theater in the works serve to enhance the quality of life of the residents. A new activity director was hired to plan and oversee bingo nights, water aerobics, sewing classes, monthly dances and other events designed to facilitate the feeling of community among all the residents.
“Every few weeks, we try to provide opportunities for structure in their lives,” says Mandy. “We try to focus on seven to 10 activities per day and offer diverse choices.”
Mandy has worked in residential real estate for 16 years, and this is the second time she has worked directly with the senior population. Her close-knit family and strong relationship with her own grandparents have helped her in dealing with the elderly and making decisions in regard to their care and well-being.
“You have to be patient with them and understand where they are coming from,” she says gently. “It’s all about them and their level of care and comfort. It’s almost the same as dealing with children.”
As the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, Mandy has firsthand knowledge in dealing with children, and like many single working moms, she strives to find the balance between career and family. Although she has been in San Antonio only one year, both she and her daughter have immersed themselves in the community. They are active members of Community Bible Church, and her daughter is a cheerleader and band member at San Antonio Christian School. Together, they enjoy exploring the Texas Hill Country and the small towns surrounding San Antonio.
“San Antonio has so much culture,” she says. “Everyone here is so friendly, and it already feels like home.” Creating that “feeling of home” for the residents of Wedgwood is what drives Mandy, and her success in that area fuels her passion for her profession.
“The rewards are when a family member comes in and thanks me for making a difference in the life of a resident,” she says happily. “Yes, this is a business I’m running, but if I am taking care of people and they are happy, then the success will come naturally.”