The Story of Jenny

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The following true story provided the unique experience this young caregiver would use to inform her leadership style and to create a unique philosophy of care for the hundreds of elders she would meet in her long and successful career. I hope you find the story insightful and enlightening.

This story is about a lady I met at the very beginning of my career. I was 22 years-old and working in a nursing home. Her name was Vincenza Donzella! However, she liked to be called Jenny!

The first day that Jenny moved into the nursing home, she was terrified. As I walked onto the 3rd floor where she lived, I heard her yelling….Help me…please somebody help me. I ran over to her and could see the terror in her eyes.

As I look back, I see how appropriate that terror was. She was seated in a wheelchair in a large room with 59 other residents. Her tablemate did not speak or respond to conversation. There were several residents who were also yelling out. Staff was busy taking residents one at a time to the bathroom located in the corner of the room. Jenny had found herself in a terrible environment and was understandably afraid.

Immediately, we became friends. Jenny needed me as so many did and I enjoyed being needed. She quickly learned my name despite her dementia and began to yell out for me each day. She’d ask. “Where is my Nancy?” Jenny found that she needed to give our relationship more significance to get a response from staff so she soon asked “Where is my niece, Nancy…do you know my niece?”

Finally, she called me her daughter and would not allow staff to suggest that this wasn’t true. We had developed a trusting relationship and I had become her family. This seemed to make her life bearable in this bad environment.

But, this relationship was not “condoned” by nursing home “rules.” Several “veteran staff” counseled me and suggested I was spoiling Jenny and all the residents. They told me that I was getting too attached to these elders. I was reminded to keep a “professional distance.” Somehow, I knew that fulfillment and a sense of wellbeing for these residents were best achieved through companionship and relationships. So, I ignored my co-workers and did what I believed was right.

I truly loved Jenny and all the residents that I was called to serve and I let them know it with lots of hugs, attention and caring. Jenny taught me so many things. She often made me laugh. When I would leave at night…she would say…don’t leave me…if you leave me, I’ll die. I’d go back and look at her and she would smile and then say…I’ll see you tomorrow. She talked to me about growing up in Italy and told me how she lost many children at birth. She was interested in my life and wondered why I wasn’t married. We had a genuine relationship that was important to both of us.

Now, over 40 years later, I have earned the authority and responsibility to teach others the lessons of Jenny. I now encourage staff to love the residents and develop real meaningful relationships with them.

In fact, I have developed an organizational chart that centers on the elders we serve with the next most important group being the elder’s family. . The different levels of direct care and support staff follow. Maintaining a clear and consistent focus on the elders we serve, ensures that we always provide the highest levels of respect and understanding to the folks who deserve it most.

Jenny taught me one of the most important secrets to what makes life worth living: Giving love and receiving love. Thanks Jenny.

To learn more about how the Rochester Presbyterian Home servers Elders, please contact their leader, Nancy Smyth, Executive Director at 585.235.9900.