Caregiving Women: An Interview with Registered Nurse Debra Richards

Growing up, I was always hyper aware of my mom’s medical knowledge and sense of practicality about illness and bodily changes. The only times she panicked were 1) when she thought I had meningitis because my neck got really stiff and I played it up for attention and 2) when my sister shoved a Polly Pocket doll up her nose and she had to run her to the ER (the outcome: my sister blew the doll out of her nose on the way there). Otherwise, she always handled us being sick or going through puberty with a calm intelligence, applying her training with a natural ease that kept us safe and healthy. I attribute my dismissal of WebMD’s alarmist diagnoses and ability to discern medical fact from fiction to my mother’s teachings and attitude toward medicine, and I don’t think I would have been as prepared to handle all the medical issues life has thrown at me without the upbringing she provided me.

My mom’s caregiving didn’t begin and end with her kids. She’s always been there for our extended family, including my dad’s side, whenever they needed advice, advocacy, or care. When I was graduating middle school, she was starting up a private geriatric care management company, extending her range of caregiving to strangers, even becoming medical power of attorney for some of her clients. Sometimes, I would go on visits with her and meet the seniors she worked with, people whose families were either too far away or too busy to care for them. It was from this I learned the value of caregiving; you don’t always appreciate it when you’re the kid watching the parent take care of you, but when you can witness that unconditional care as an outside observer, it becomes a lot easier to understand.

Debra Richards is my mom, and while she’s no longer in the care management business, she still cares for people as a case manager, previously at a Cancer Treatment Centers of America facility and now with the VA. I asked her a few questions about her experiences as a caregiver, and I hope her answers will shed a light on the legacy of care my mom has created throughout her lifetime.

Give us a bit on your background, whether it’s in caregiving or not.

I’ve been a registered nurse for the past 30 years. I have worked in critical care chemical dependency, home care, geriatric care management, and case management, and I’m also medical power of attorney for a number of people.

What brought you to caregiving?

Working as an RN, I found many people that needed the assistance in their home and was seeing patients that did not have family members to assist them.

Did you have any prior skills before starting?

Medical training as a registered nurse.

How do you deal with challenges?

When I have a challenge, I have many medical friends that assist me in trying to figure out the best approach to any complication or challenge. I am never afraid to ask for help.

How do you approach caregiving now compared to how you started?

Through the years, I’ve learned to listen more and to try and make the persons life as comfortable as can be and to make sure that they understand that I am there for them.

What would you like to see change about caregiving in the future?

I would love to see more laws that protect the individual so that people cannot take advantage of them.

What’s a story that shaped your caregiving experience?

The one patient that stands out for me was a lady who I was asked to assist in finding a place that would be safe for her. She was in a nursing home with a caregiver. When I walked into her room, she was awake sitting on her bed, and the caregiver was asleep. Even though I knew she had dementia, I asked her if she needed this individual, and she said no, that the caregiver creeped her out and was always sleeping. I then went to the nursing station and ask them if she needed the caregiver 24/7; they said no. I then asked this person to leave. I also found out this individual was using the patient’s credit card, so we had attorneys deal with that.  Even though the client had multiple medical problems, we were able to find her an assisted-living facility that took very good care of her for the next five years, and, as her illness progressed, she ended up in a nursing home that she said she was still happy with and that she was safe.

What lessons have you learned from caregiving?

What I learned through the years is that you need to respect the person that you’re providing the care for. You need to respect their beliefs, their wishes, and how they want to live their life, whether or not you agree with it. I learned through the years that there are many people who others take advantage of and need the assistance of someone that really respects them and how they want to live their life. You also really, really need to check in on the person many times, and not always at the same time, to ensure that they are in a safe environment.

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