Cathy Connors is approaching retirement – and she’s doing it with mixed feelings.
The social worker at the Agnes Pratt Nursing Home in St. John’s hit her 30-year mark in long-term care in February of this year. Cathy chose long-term care at the beginning of her career – and never looked back.
It’s a field that requires a special set of skills and a different kind of dedication. Residents come to spend the final months and years of their lives here when they can no longer live alone or care for themselves. Many arrive in various stages of dementia.
Some do not want to leave their own homes – and the move to a nursing home can also upset, or even divide, families.
Cathy Connors finds inspiration even among these challenges.
“I love to help people, and it is a sacred thing to be part of peoples’ journeys towards the end of life,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of sad things, and yet I’ve met so many wonderful people who face difficult situations so bravely – it inspires me.”
Cathy is often the first person a new resident or their family members will meet when they enter the world of long-term care. She assesses the men and women to determine if they require long-term care; she coordinates the admission process and greets them when they arrive.
She says first those first impressions are very important.
“It’s a hard time in people’s lives, especially during the first days of adjustment – and it can be a challenge to help families get back on track, as they deal with new surroundings and adjust to a ‘new normal.’
“You need to be both compassionate and professional. And you need to be able to connect with people, especially those with dementia. A hug or a smile or a cheery ‘Good Morning’ makes a difference, and they often hug you back and say ‘I love you.’”
Cathy says over the years, she’s drawn on her training in psychology, sociology, counseling and mediation. She’s learned to ‘read between the lines’ in all kinds of human dynamics…and she’s learned to listen.
“Your approach is the key to a positive outcome,” she adds. “You need to understand how difficult a time it is for residents and their families, how distraught they can be and how important it is to advocate for them. And I’ve proven the old adage that says you catch more flies with honey than vinegar!”
And then there’s crib!
Cathy plays a mean game – and she and a co-worker often play with Bill Jarvis, a 92-year-old resident, during her breaks. It’s a great way to have fun and connect with residents on a whole other, more personal level. And it’s easy to get attached – and hard to let go when the inevitable happens in long-term care.
“Over the years, I’ve learned how to maintain a balance between the personal and professional when it comes to our residents,” she adds. “But it’s a fine line, and sometimes it feels like it getting harder – because there’s such joy in getting to know these men and women, and being part of their journey.”
There are many practical responsibilities, too – like helping residents get eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures. Cathy also facilitates family support groups and resident care conferences and oversees moves from one unit to another, as required.
Cathy has had a successful career making a positive difference in the lives of residents and families as well as the health care teams who work alongside her, according to Judy O’Keefe, the Regional Director of Long-Term Care with Eastern Health.
“The role of the social worker in a long-term care facility is to enable each individual to function at the highest possible level of social and emotional wellness,” Judy adds. “I have known Cathy since my own entry into long-term care social work in 1987 – not only is she an advocate for long-term care but also for her profession.
“She is an outstanding example of the critical role of a social worker in long-term care – enhancing the opportunity for the resident’s positive life experience.”
Cathy’s days are so full that she finds it astounding – almost shocking – that she’s been doing this for 30 years! She says she’s seen a lot of changes over the years: the health care system has gotten bigger and it’s important not to lose sight of quality control and what is best for the resident, as more and more people require specialized long-term care.
Cathy says it’s important to adapt to change and to look for the positive in every situation. In any case, she says the essence of social work has not changed; it’s all about helping people to become more informed about their situation, and when they know what’s happening, they do better – especially when it comes to long-term care.
And there’s always music!
Cathy’s a singer – and often shares her talents with the residents, along with other musical co-workers. She says music plays a huge role in long-term care; it creates more of a home-like setting and brings even the most reserved residents out of their shells.
“If my talent brings joy to them, then that’s what it’s all about,” she adds with a smile. “I believe I’ve been given a gift to connect with people, and it’s rewarding to share that personal warmth in my professional life.”
But now it’s time to enter a new phase of her own life. A couple of health challenges in recent years have meant that after a lifetime of looking after others, now it’s time for Cathy Connors to look after herself. And what will she miss most when she retires a few months down the road?
The very question makes her eyes fill with tears.
“I’ll miss the personal contact. Checking in on all the units – being useful and helpful to people,” she says quietly. “When you have residents waiting for you to come to work because they need to talk to you in particular – that’s special.
“It’s rewarding to bring that kind of comfort.” ■
This story was written by Deborah Collins, a communications manager with Eastern Health, based in St. John’s.