Tami Vanderworp was thrown into a family caregiver’s role as a 9-year-old when her grandmother suffered a massive stroke and went to live with her family. Tami and Grandma shared the same bedroom for six years before her senior loved one was placed in a nursing home for her final six months.
Tami learned compassion and how to keep her grandmother alive when she suffered convulsions and would come dangerously close to swallowing her tongue. “I would have to hold her mouth open and keep her tongue in the right place,” recalled Tami, the CAREGiver of the Month for Home Instead Senior Care® of Birmingham. Tami also helped her dad before his cancer death in 1995; her mother died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2007.
In addition, Tami has beaten two forms of cancer, breast and thyroid. “I’ve gone through the scare of cancer, so I get it – the fear that our clients feel with their physical and emotional pain,” Tami said. “I have the empathy for them and their families because I have been there.”
Having overcome cancer, Tami has a unique outlook on life. When asked if she has words of wisdom for others: “I’d say, ‘Try your hardest to be happy. The Good Lord works things out. I am still here and am fine.’ When situations like that happen, you learn to appreciate the little things and don’t take things for granted so much,” Tami said. “It is awkward for me to bring up my own cancer. When I know someone else has gone through it, like a 98-year-old client of mine, we can chat about it and both feel blessed to have beaten it.”
Looking back, Tami saw those experiences as valuable senior care preparation after a retail career ended. She became a CAREGiver in January 2014 after extensive online research of Home Instead and another company. She said: “I have been helping seniors my whole life – including a 97-year-old family friend – and everyone told me that I’d be good at senior care.”
Tami added: “Getting into senior care was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I wish I had done it sooner. Wendy Vassallo, our client experience coordinator, instantly made me feel as if I would be welcomed with open arms as part of the team. Everybody on the staff greets you when you walk in, and they know your name. That’s impressive. This was the right choice.”
Tami’s decision was affirmed when she went with franchise owner Bert Copple to meet a 68-year-old client who is a Vietnam military veteran. Tami was impressed with the compassionate touch displayed by Bert, a military veteran who served in the Iraqi conflict.
“I was job-shadowing Bert when he went to help the client, an amputee who lost part of a leg because of an infection,” Tami explained. “When the veteran found out Bert also had served in the military, it brought tears to his eyes because he immediately knew he found someone who would understand him. It brought tears to my eyes, too.
“I was a fill-in then, but later was a regular with him for three months. We hit it off. He would never let any CAREGiver help him with a shower. I was the first. I came in one day and said, ‘Toots, you need a shower. Let’s get it done.’ He said, ‘What did you call me?’ And I said, ‘Toots. Let’s get to it.’ He relented and had me help with his shower.
“After that, when I came in the door, he’d say, ‘There’s my Toots!’ He is an extremely private man who just wants to remain in his home with his cats. I don’t think he’s given any thought of going to a VA home because he wants to stay in his own home as long as possible.”
Tami loves spending her time with her clients. “This is a great job. Every client is different. They make my day as much as I make theirs. All it takes to make my day is a smile or a hello. I just love seniors,” she said.
“I have a 92-year-old female hospice client with Parkinson’s disease. She remains in bed and doesn’t speak. I rub her hand, and when I see her smile, it makes my day. Even though she does not talk, her eyes say a lot to me. I put lotion on her hands, and her eyes are telling me, ‘Thank you.’ I tell her, ‘You’re welcome.’ ”
Another of Tami’s clients is an 85-year-old woman who requests three hours on Friday nights for companionship. “On occasion,” Tami said, “she’ll joke with me about running the vacuum for a while so she can say I did her light housekeeping. I love to do it and whatever else needs to be done, but then she quickly gets us back to gin rummy. Another is a lady I see on Sundays, and she loves to have someone watch the final round of the pro golf events with her.”
Tami still has her first client, an 85-year-old man, from Monday through Friday. “He is just amazing, and he likes to remain active,” Tami said. “He has some dementia; he had traveled around the world quite a bit and talks a lot about the past. But present-day conversation is a little more difficult. He likes to eat out. At one restaurant on Woodward Avenue, everyone knows him when he walks in. Because of him, they also know me well. During the warm weather, we walk to downtown Birmingham to get lunch. He feels like family to me.”
Tami has tried her hand at recruiting. “I wish my husband would become a CAREGiver because he is so good with seniors – in fact we help a 97-year-old family friend because we are her family caregivers. My husband Mike wants to stay with his job at a big-box retail store for now, but Mike tells me he could see himself as a CAREGiver. I know it was a perfect fit for me.”
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