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Dedicated to Caregiving

Over an evening glass of white wine near the end of work week, Nancy Procell unreels her stories and insights. She glows with helpfulness and compassion, sorting through questions of discretion, as the lamplight in her Siesta Key home illuminates her face.
“I think of myself as a companion in a sacred journey,” says Procell. As a caregiver employed by Comfort Keepers, she goes into the homes of people to help them stay there as long as possible.
Procell, who has three surviving adult children and five grandchildren in Kentucky, says she tries to be the daughter who can’t be there because she’s too far away. Or the husband not there to help with financial decisions. Or the mother who can’t provide comfort. Or the cleaning lady who scrubs the floor. Or a friend when the client may have outlived all of hers. “We do what needs to be done. We try to help the person be a whole person,” she says.
On Christmas 2000, soon after Procell started working as a caregiver, she stayed up all night with a client. The woman’s husband had died the previous year. And soon after, the woman was robbed and assaulted in her apartment. Fearful, she moved into a skilled-care nursing facility. She didn’t want to face Christmas alone.
“I came in, and she kept her eyes closed and wouldn’t talk and was totally unresponsive. The nurses told me she was very agitated,” Procell says. “I sat there very quietly with her for a while. And then I said, ‘I bet I could sing any song you could mention.’” The woman still did not respond, so Procell began with an old standard like “Always.”
“And she opened her eyes, and she started singing, too, just a little bit. And we sang the rest of the night.” Not Christmas songs — Procell has to be careful of bringing her own religious views into the job — so they sang songs from the ’30s and ’40s. “When the sun came up, I said Christmas was over,” Procell says. “When I went home that day, I knew I had done what I was meant to do as a woman.”
Procell’s past equipped her exceptionally well for care giving, although it may not have seemed that way at first. A high school dropout who had her first child at 17, she went to college when she was 33 and the divorced mother of four children. (The college waived the GED requirements.) She obtained undergraduate and master’s degrees in clinical psychology — thanks to her children’s sacrifices and support, she says — and taught psychology for 20 years at her alma maters, Paducah Community College and Murray State University, both in Kentucky. Her main focus was the field of death and dying. She also was owner and president of an excavating company, which she sold when she retired five years ago to Sarasota.
A friend in Naples had been working part time as a caregiver, and her experiences intrigued Procell, who became one of the first people Michael Jones hired when he opened his Comfort Keepers franchise in the summer of 2000. He now has offices in Sarasota, Bradenton and Venice. The cost of a caregiver ranges from $15 to $17 an hour, based on location and service.
“Some of our finest caregivers are retired women like Nancy who have had unique, successful careers in their past and really have a lot to give,” Jones says. “We actually look for caregivers who aren’t looking for a job. Our caregivers are people who are looking to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Last year, based on Jones’s nomination, Procell was named state Caregiver of the Year among the nationally franchised Comfort Keepers’ approximately 46 Florida offices. “I wrote, like, three pages for what made Nancy special,” Jones says. “Nancy’s just an extraordinary woman. She’s bright, she’s articulate, she’s sensitive. She really knows her boundaries. Some caregivers try to get over involved.”
Setting boundaries and expectations upfront is important. “One of the problems for caregivers is to whom do you owe loyalty. That is a tricky thing,” Procell says. “The answer is that you establish that in the beginning, and you might ask a son or a daughter in the presence of the client whether or not you are responsible to them or the client.” The superseding situation, she says, is when anyone is in danger.
Jones says a typical client is over age 75 and usually has one or more disabilities or illnesses. Often caregivers are summoned for somebody needing help for just a week or two and called back as folks age or problems reoccur. “We’re the flip side of home health in the state of Florida,” Jones says, explaining that in this state caregivers who are not licensed as home health aides may not dispense or handle medication. “We monitor and remind.” Also, they cannot do such tasks as providing bathing, shaving, diaper changing or lifting, though the caregivers may lend assistance. Because of Procell’s business background, Jones said, she’s been permitted to work with clients’ finances when most other caregivers would not be.
Louise Cameron, a client of Procell’s for five years, says, “I think I really loved her the minute I met her.” Procell arrived in July 2000 to help with Cameron’s husband, Griggs, who had become seriously ill. After his death that October, Procell continued working with Louise Cameron — with errands, laundry, food shopping, trips to the doctor, sorting mail, balancing the checkbook, or whatever else was needed.
“She’s meant a great deal to me,” says Cameron, who has three children and two grandchildren living in other states. “I feel that, really, Nancy’s a member of my family.”
When caregivers are called, Procell says, “it’s because there’s a vulnerable person who has suffered some kind of loss. Which means that though they may need you they don’t necessarily want you, and they have no reason to trust you. ... They are frightened, and that fright comes out as distrust and anger.” That’s especially true with men, she says, because men don’t like to be dependent on a woman. And most caregivers are women. Being a trustworthy person develops the bond. “And when they trust you they will tell you things that they can’t tell their children or their spouse. Often it might look like they’re turning to you rather than turning to their own family.” It’s because they don’t want to hurt loved ones, she says.
Some people get better from whatever is putting them in need, and they become Procell’s friends. So do survivors of her former clients. One wrote in a letter to Comfort Keepers’ franchise owner Jones, “Whatever hopes and preconceptions I might have had for what a ‘companion’ could do to enhance my mother’s life, Nancy Procell exceeded them all. She brought to my mother, and to my whole family for that matter, a unique and precious combination of patience, intelligence, beauty, insight, compassion, wit, empathy, exuberance and sheer joy in life.”
The mother was “old-fashioned Irish to the core,” Procell says. On the woman’s first time out since she had started using a wheelchair, Procell took her to an all-day St. Patrick’s Day celebration at an Irish pub the client liked to visit. Procell’s son and his 3-year-old, who were visiting, went along. The little group stayed for six hours.
“We sat, and my granddaughter danced a lot, and we sang. It was a beautiful day and they had a whole troop of Irish dancers,” Procell says. “We took pictures of other people and ourselves.”
A few days later, the client went to the hospital for an operation. Her daughter was there, and so was Procell. “Hello, chum,” the woman greeted Procell on the way out of surgery. “I’ll be OK. Just don’t leave me alone.” But her condition worsened. And with the daughter on one side holding her mother and talking to her, and Procell on the other, the mother and Procell put their hands on each other’s hearts and breathed together. And the woman died.
“I’m not there as a dying coach. I’m there to help them live as well as they can as long as they can,” Procell says