Nancy White and Christine Mills met in 2018, when they answered an ad for volunteers at Glen Cove Hospital. Sitting next to each other at the orientation, the retired nurses immediately bonded, eventually becoming good friends.
They discovered that they lived near each other, White in Glen Head and Mills in Oyster Bay, that their husbands had once worked together in the medical field, and that they had a common goal — to interact with patients again. But their volunteerism was cut short when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
White and Mills were ecstatic when they got a call in March from the hospital, asking them to come back. They would still be volunteering, they were told, but this time as caregiver coaches.
“Being a caregiver coach is different than being a regular volunteer,” explained Lorna Lee-Riley, the hospital’s senior social worker and the coordinator of the caregiver program. “They don’t have to have a medical background. We’re looking
for people interested in being a support for the caregivers, someone passionate about them who will make sure they receive education and provide resources to them.”
Wearing uniforms of a navy-blue blazer and white pants, Mills and White bring a variety of brochures when they drop by a patient’s room. After they explain why they are there, they often see a look of relief from the caregiver, they say. It’s a gentle process.
The brochures, full of information including community resources, are left with the caregivers, who are encouraged to check out the Caregiver Center, which is right off the downstairs lobby. It opened in July, although it was completed in 2001 as part of a $750,000 project funded by the volunteer Community Partnership Board. The pandemic delayed its opening.
The center, open 24 hours a day, was designed to give caregivers respite. The atmosphere in two private rooms is calming, with light-blue reclining sleeper chairs, adjustable lighting, pale-gray flowered carpeting and original artwork on the walls. There’s calming music in one room and white noise in the other, to help caregivers relax. And there’s a phone in each room, so no one will worry about being out of touch with a patient. The space also includes a table and chairs, for conversation, and a couch.
“If a patient is critical, the caregiver can sleep overnight here,” Lee-Riley said, pointing to the couch. “The idea is to minimize the stress a person is feeling.”
The third room is a resource center that has computers, desks, phones and Wi-Fi.
Caregiver coaches undergo training for two to three months, in which they learn how to interview and connect with caregivers, and strategies for working with the most reluctant. They also shadow social workers and role-play. It’s important, Lee-Riley said, that the coach understands human behavior.
White has firsthand experience as a caregiver. Her husband, Craig, had a stroke in 2017, and spent roughly nine months at Glen Cove Hospital. He’s doing well now — even driving, Nancy said — but she remembers the long road of helping him.
“The nurses and social workers at the hospital were very helpful, always ready to talk to me,” she said. “I wanted support the most.”
The women said that more often than not, caregivers are happy to see them, and appreciate any help finding resources. And just talking, they added, can sometimes be most important.
“I find as a coach that some welcome the opportunity to let it all out,” Mills said. “Caregivers generally don’t take care of themselves. We emphasize the need for them to, and offer self-care tips.”
In addition, there is a support group for caregivers that meets on the first Tuesday of the month. Victoria Bjorklund, who takes care of her husband, said the group has been very helpful.
“You think, because you’re isolated, that you have all of these challenges, but then at the meeting you hear all the challenges others have,” said Bjorklund, who lives in Sea Cliff. “You get constructive suggestions. I learn from other people, and I’m able to offer advice, too.”
Caregivers support each other, she added. “One even brought in articles for me,” she said. “Before this, it was a lonely situation.”
Lee-Riley said she believes the coaches and the center helps. “You can see a change in (caregivers’) demeanor in a positive way after they receive the smallest intervention,” she said. “We sometimes underestimate that, how asking what a person is feeling can make an impact. Caregivers often feel their needs shouldn’t be taken into consideration.”
White and Mills said that being a caregiver coach has been nothing but positive. “Doing this is very satisfying and fulfilling,” Mills said. “When I leave here, I feel good about myself that I’ve helped.”
“I feel the same way,” White said. “It’s very gratifying to know that I helped. This is what I always wanted to do.”