When her 97-year-old client Louisa* decided it was time for a fashion change, Partners in Care home health aide (HHA) Paula W. didn’t miss a beat. A year ago, at the time Paula began working with Louisa, the former New York City kindergarten teacher regularly wore a mostly black wardrobe. Then one day, things changed without warning: When Paula laid out a top and the usual black pants for her patient, Louisa told her firmly, “I don’t like to wear black! Black is for death.”
As she’s learned to do in her 16 years as a Partners in Care HHA in Manhattan, Paula adapted. Now she picks out only tops in white, pink, and aqua, and slacks in gray, blue, or burgundy. Understanding that people’s wants and needs can shift at any age is a key part of her success as a caregiver. “I’ve learned when to let my clients have their way, but I’ll also be firm when I have to be,” says Paula. That kind of give and take—plus a lot of joking—is what bonds Paula and her client. “Louisa will say silly things to me like ‘I’m cold…and I’m old,’ and that makes me laugh every time.”
Louisa and Paula have a routine they follow every weekday morning. After giving Louisa a sponge bath and helping her dress, Paula makes breakfast—always eggs, no coffee or juice. Then it’s time for a walk, which is where another part of Paula’s expertise comes into play. A couple of years ago, she went through a Partners in Care training program to become a rehab HHA—a home health aide who is qualified to help clients carry out exercise programs prescribed by a physical therapist. Paula still draws on what she learned. Louisa’s hallway is a city block long, making for a significant stroll, and Paula is careful to stand to one side as Louisa moves with her walker, keeping a hand on her client’s waist to help her stay balanced.
Initially Louisa couldn’t take more than a few steps before becoming winded, and she’d try to end the walk early. Today, after almost a year of daily practice, her balance is better and she can walk for much longer stretches before needing a short rest—and she enjoys it. “When she does get tired, I help her do the breathing exercises her therapist taught her, inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth, and it helps,” says Paula.
After the walk, Paula pours a nutritional drink for Louisa, who then puts on her reading glasses and tucks into a book by her favorite mystery author, Lorna Barrett. Occasionally, when she gets frustrated or angry, Louisa exhibits signs of her dementia by banging on a table, yelling, or cursing. At those moments, Paula calls on her training, reminding herself to stay calm as she works to redirect her client to focus on something else.
Since moving to New York from New Orleans over a decade and a half ago, Paula has cared for hundreds of clients during her time with Partners in Care, and she finds her HHA work consistently rewarding. “Since I was young, I’ve always wanted to help people,” she says. “Paula is always attentive to her clients’ needs and looking after their well-being,” adds her supervisor, Andrea Arzu. “She is truly a gem.”
* The patient’s name has been changed for privacy.