Sonia P. Named Our 2021 CAREGiver of the Year
When Sonia P. earned a business degree in her native Bolivia nearly 40 years ago, she never could have imagined that one day she would be working in the United States as a CAREGiver for the elderly. Over several decades, as a busy mom working various office jobs, Sonia didn’t even have caregiving on her radar.
But Sonia has many qualities that make her a natural for caregiving, a job that she began five years ago at Home Instead, and she quickly became a favorite of her clients. Recognizing her outstanding service, Home Instead’s Silver Spring office named her this year’s CAREGiver of the Year.
“She is patient and kind and makes her clients feel so comfortable and safe,” says Diana M., Home Instead’s Client Services Manager. “She takes her time getting to know them and interacts with them in a way that is gentle, yet productive. She has the ability to push them to do things without being too pushy. We have heard compliment after compliment about her from her clients.” She even once received a thank you note from Paul Hogan, one of the founders of Home Instead, who had heard about Sonia’s excellent care of one of her clients. Hogan called her “a fine example of our Home Instead CAREGivers.”
Suzy V., the daughter of one of Sonia’s clients, says Sonia “goes above and beyond” for her mother. Sonia, Suzy explains, makes her mother special meals, brings her fresh vegetables from Sonia’s garden, takes her out to lunch, and keeps her active. “She is always pleasant and helpful, and we are lucky to have her,” Suzy says. “I only wish she could be with my mother every day of the week!”
Before coming to Home Instead, Sonia was a new retiree with dreams of moving back to Bolivia, where she had purchased a home in the city of Santa Cruz for her golden years. She also toyed with the idea of opening a shop that sold pastries, coffee, and tea.
But Sonia was also thinking of her parents, both of whom had died in Bolivia a few years before her retirement. The distance and her job made it difficult to get back to Bolivia regularly to take care of them, especially near the end of their lives when their health was failing. She still remembers with sadness how work and other circumstances prevented her from reaching Bolivia in time for their funerals.
Sonia decided caregiving could be a way that she could share the love that her parents had shown her. She would be able to take care of her clients in the way that she wished she had been able to take care of her parents.
Between Bolivia and the U.S.
Although Sonia didn’t have any formal training in caregiving, the experience of growing up in a tight-knit, loving family formed the responsible and optimistic character that has served her so well in her job. The oldest of five children, she was born and raised in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Her dad was an engineer, and her mom was an elementary school teacher. Sonia met her husband, a professor, during her first year of college. They soon left for New York City, where he had a scholarship to get his doctorate in physics at City University of New York.
Sonia worked in food service and as a babysitter, and her husband became a professor at City University. The couple was settled in Queens and raising their first son, when life took a dramatic turn -- her husband was hit by a car and badly injured, requiring months in the hospital and several surgeries. Dispirited by the experience, he decided he wanted to move back to Bolivia, and Sonia agreed.
Soon, Sonia had her second son and a job at the Nature Conservancy’s office in La Paz, Bolivia. During this time, she also finished her degree in business strategy and administration at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar. After working more than 10 years as an office manager and project administrator for the Nature Conservancy, Sonia moved to the Bolivia program of Conservation International. Four more years went by, and Conservation International asked her to move to Washington, DC, for a finance project manager job. She accepted, and took her sons with her. Her husband stayed behind in Bolivia, and eventually they divorced.
Sonia settled into life in the DC area. She bought a house in Rockville, then moved on to the National Institutes of Health as a contracts officer. Her last office job, as a grants and contracts administrator at the International Food Policy Research Institute, ended with her retirement at age 63.
Although Sonia had plans to return to Bolivia, packing up a house and moving thousands of miles seemed daunting, and she had ties to the area now — friends, as well as her two now-grown sons and an adorable grandson. So, Sonia, no stranger to new experiences, dove into her new job at Home Instead, and found that she liked it a lot more than she expected. “It’s very rewarding and interesting,” she said. “I get attached to all my clients.”
A Compassionate Approach
Sonia sets out to be not just a CAREGiver to her clients, but also their friend. She works hard to gain their trust so they will accept her as an important part of their lives.
When it comes to knowing what clients need, Sonia always has her parents in mind. She thinks about how her own parents would have reacted if a stranger came into their lives and had to feed, bathe, and clothe them and help them in the bathroom. “Seniors suffer a lot in these matters,” Sonia says. “Their privacy and dignity are threatened. I tell them I saw my parents go through the same situation and that I understand them. I explain how I wish I could have helped my parents in the way I want to help them. I ask them to give me that opportunity and to trust me.”
To establish those strong relationships with her clients, Sonia had to learn “a few tricks” to make the job go smoothly. For instance, she has found that her clients appreciate a more formal greeting, such as “Good morning/good afternoon, Mr. or Mrs. -----.” CAREGivers should enter their clients’ lives “with respect,” Sonia says. “They like that. They want to feel important.”
She has also learned the value of patience. If her new clients don’t want to talk to her at first or eat the food that she makes them, she doesn’t take it personally and waits for the situation to evolve. “They change over time if you’re kind to them,” she says.
She finds that just talking to her clients can be a good technique for calming situations and convincing her clients to try certain activities. One of her seniors with advanced Alzheimer’s proved to be especially challenging. The client didn’t want to shower or be changed and would become quite agitated and erratic in her behavior. Sonia was at her wit’s end — but she knew she had to do something to improve the situation. “It got better because I talked to her,” Sonia says. “I would say, we are here to help you. It’s good for you, good for your family. I kept talking to her. She finally accepted me. It was very hard. But at end, we were very good friends.” Sonia became the only person the client would trust to wash and groom her.
Another strategy that helped with this client was to conduct a thorough cleaning of the house, which had been neglected. Sonia washed all the bed linens down to the mattress pad and convinced a relative to rent a steam cleaner to clean the carpet. She cleaned and dusted all the furniture. She brought in flowers from her garden. The improved surroundings lifted the mood of her client.
Activity and Cheer
Vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry—these are all chores that most of us take on with little enthusiasm. But for Sonia, they are steps to making her clients’ homes a warm and welcoming place. And approaching all her tasks with a cheerful attitude is equally important. Sonia says, “I open the blinds to bring light in. I talk about what a nice day it is. I water the plants. I ask them what their favorite music is and put it on. I dance with them. I dance in front of them. I encourage them to drink lots of water. Just little things to make their environment clean and happy. It makes them feel alive.” For one client, Sonia regularly put her culinary talents to use by cutting up fruit and arranging it on his plate to look like a flower. “For a long time, he didn’t say anything about it,” Sonia remembers. “Then one day, he thanked me.”
Sonia also believes that movement and getting outdoors are crucial to helping her seniors live fulfilling lives. “They spend too much time lying in a bed or sitting in a chair,” Sonia says. “I don’t just watch TV with them. I try to find activities for them.” She frequently takes walks with her clients. “We walk a block, a half block, a few steps,” she says. “It changes them. And getting them outside is an unbelievable miracle for them.”
Sonia’s knack for getting seniors to do things they often resist is much appreciated by the Home Instead office staff. What also makes her a standout, in their view, is her reliability. Even after a long shift, Sonia will often stay over with a client if a CAREGiver who was supposed to relieve her is late or calls in sick. Bad weather doesn’t keep her from showing up. And they can also trust her to handle almost any situation.
Although Sonia’s clients benefit greatly from her care, their resilience, wisdom, and lifetime of experiences offer her much in return. “I learn a lot from my clients,” she says, adding that several of her seniors have been in their 90s and some have even passed the century mark. She’s heard many stories about World War II, like the ones from a client who was a pilot during the war and from another who survived a concentration camp. “All these stories about the past are enriching,” says Sonia. “You learn life is beautiful no matter what age you are.”
Sonia is at age when many folks are slowing down. Instead, she is working 38 hours a week for Home Instead. She admits she doesn’t have much time for her favorite hobbies, including gardening, cooking, and baking. Maybe this “retiree” will finally get to relax when someday she moves back to Bolivia. But then again, when Sonia wonders aloud about opening a Home Instead franchise there, it’s clear that this is a woman who likes to stay busy. For that, her clients are grateful and happy that she’s right where she’s at!