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Taking care of the caregivers
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AS THIS CITY’S self–appointed anti–social columnist, there appears to be no good reason I should be out drinking Vinho Verde with the Belle of Savannah on a school night.

But Jamie Marie Smith ain’t your typical socialite.

(And though I cannot boast of any real oenopoetic knowledge, I will venture to opine that Portuguese Vinho Verde is a rather exquisite and affordable spritzy white wine.)

Sure, Jamie was voted the most popular and community–minded girl in town via the Belle & Beau contest sponsored by the Young Professionals of Savannah last May.

Leadership Savannah? Check. Humane Society fundraiser, Alzheimer’s Association 5K, church musical?

She’s out collecting donations, selling tickets and starring in the show. Bounce in at any of the city’s ubiquitous networking events (is this a networking town with a drinking problem or a drinking town with a networking problem?) and she’s there, connecting names and faces and handing out business cards.

Killer blues band playing? Jamie’s front row, getting down. She appears to possess the uncanny ability to be several places at once; it’s possible to get dizzy just reading her Facebook updates.

So why am I at Bar Food in Habersham Village with this social flutterby when I should be home playing Scrabble with the iPad?

First off, I like Jamie a lot.

We met years ago at some drinking networking deal where the conversation mostly tended towards gossipy schadenfreude, and she and I ended up deep in discussion about the conditions of an area nursing home we’d both visited earlier in the week.

I’ve always been impressed by her authenticity–this isn’t someone who spins around town like a Sufi dervish because she’s hoping to have her picture taken.

“I really love this city and the people in it,” she shrugs. “Sometimes I spread myself a little thin, but there’s just so much to do and support.”

She also swears like a sailor, which in my book is a highly admirable attribute.

Jamie and I tend to get deep real quick, especially when aided by a nice Vinho Verde. We’ve made time to chat because I’m more interested in her day job than her whirlwind evenings.

She’s the marketing director for Coastal Home Care, an organization that provides home care, case management and adult sitter services throughout the Lowcountry, and she wants to know how my mother–in–law is doing.

I tell her she’s doing all right, that things are about the same.

My mother–in–law, a dear and lovely person who taught French at Windsor Forest High in the 80s and volunteered throughout the community for decades, has been quietly declining from frontotemporal dementia for the last ten years.

We’ve been very fortunate to be able to have her at home as the decline becomes steeper, made possible by formal caregivers who come and tend to her every day.

For those of you who have had a loved one with a similar condition, you already know it’s a rotten situation for everyone involved.

It’ll test your family’s love, faith and aim as you throw things at the wall in frustration. It’ll also bring out humility and gratitude and a macabre sense of humor about things like mortality.

Not exactly sexy fodder for cocktail conversation.

But this Southern belle is at ease with the language of caregiving. She spends her days fostering relationships with Savannah’s nursing and hospice communities as well as managing a small caseload of her own clients.

She visits elderly grandmas in neighborhoods I’ve never heard of. She’s helped families with mental and physical challenges maintain their independence.

She knows most of the caregivers CHC employs by name and the people whose homes they visit.

Our talk turns to these caregivers. You’ve heard plenty of hideous stories about cretins who steal jewelry from blind old ladies or abuse the helpless people they’re supposed to be caring for.

It’s an industry that has an endless demand for qualified, compassionate workers yet some terrible people find their way in.

CHC has a strong vetting process that weeds out the bad folks, and Jamie muses that all the caregivers she knows are incredibly dedicated and kind. I have to agree.

Here I must give a shout out to Ms. Britannia Jones, who has been putting up with our family going on five years.

Britannia is an independent Certified Nurse’s Assistant who came to us with glowing recommendations from a family who only let her go because the patient passed on.

As my mother–in–law has drawn deeper into wherever frontotemporal dementia takes a mind, Britannia has spent the weekdays helping her bathe and dress, sitting with her at the piano and wheeling her outside on breezy days.

She also does plenty not in the job description, like laughing at my father–in–law’s jokes and keeping the dog from chewing up every shoe in the house.

She brought her family to my father–in–law’s 70th birthday celebration and weeps with us on the hard days. To say she feels like a member of the family won’t cut it; she has become one.

Sometimes I’ll stop by for lunch and we’ll start in on husbands and kids and bills and life and I’ll ask her why she chose to do this for a living.

“Taking care of people, it’s all I’ve ever done,” she’ll say as she straightens the napkin across my mother–in–law’s lap.
“I live a blessed life, and giving back this way means I’ll never forget it.”

When we really get going, she might also swear like a sailor, and you know how I feel about that.

As time’s gone by, our need for care has increased, and on any given evening CNA Ernestine Baker or CHC caregiver Iris Carter might be on the sofa reading to my mother–in–law and helping her with her bedtime routine.

Both of these women possess that high caliber of dedication and gentle presence, and I hope I tell them enough how much their work is appreciated. Caregiving isn’t exactly a glamorous profession, and I don’t imagine the accolades are many.

While our family is blessed with the ability to hire caregivers, I know many in Savannah don’t have the resources.

Sixty–five million people — 29 percent of the American population — spends an average of 20 hours a week caring for a disabled, special needs, chronically ill or aged family member, most of them women with children of their own.

Maybe you know a few. You probably don’t see them at too many cocktail parties.

I guess part of being a Southern belle means understanding that you just can’t care enough. Jamie and I raise our glasses and make a toast to caregivers everywhere, wishing them all the strength and patience in the world.