Celebrating the caregivers who make long lives better

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Caregivers are part of the many things that help the community go round. Whether that help is in the nursing home or an actual home — from social workers to nurses, the northern Bronx would lose their canes without them.

National Caregivers Month in November isn’t the only reason to celebrate this profession. And both Shyrel Thomas-Ritter and Franca Martino-Starvaggi prove it.

“Helping someone else gives me great satisfaction knowing that I’ve done an honest job, caring for them, being empathetic toward them,” said Ritter, a senior nursing aide at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. After immigrating from Jamaica, Thomas-Ritter received her certified nursing assistant degree from the Municipal Training Center.

Thomas-Ritter was first interested in becoming a dietitian. But once she arrived in the United States, working in the caregiving field seemed to be a more practical path.

More than three decades later, Thomas-Ritter is still at the Hebrew Home. She works with advanced dementia patients and although they mentally live most of their lives in the past, it’s still a pleasure for her. Thomas-Ritter’s job as a nurse has helped her to care for her own family members over the years as well.

“Knowing that I helped someone each day and understanding their needs helps me and allows me to appreciate the aging process,” she said. “I was a caregiver to my husband, who passed away a year ago, and (for) my parents. It gave me the skills and experience to care for him.”

The skills Thomas-Ritter learned working with advanced dementia patients allowed her to lay diagnose her mother before the doctors had. She noticed the signs of dementia beforehand, ultimately allowing her to care for her mother not just as a daughter, but a qualified nurse.

Working with the elderly can be difficult, however, and like Thomas-Ritter, Martino-Starvaggi understands. 

“I was really close to my grandparents, and the elderly tend to be very wise and all knowing, and I always felt that,” said Martino-Starvaggi, the social work director at Schervier Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. Growing up in an Italian household, it is part of her culture to respect and love elders she said.

Almost from the beginning, Martino-Starvaggi noticed the elderly didn’t seem to have much of a voice because of their advanced mental state causing fragility. She has remained an advocate for them over the last 30 years.

“I feel that they need to be protected and taken care of,” Martino-Starvaggi said. “That was where I felt I could do the best work I can.”

As a social worker, Martino-Starvaggi helps her patients differently than nurses.

“I feel that we do a lot of things and wear a lot of hats and we’re there to support them emotionally and with any issues of anxiety and depression,” she said.

At her Independence Avenue facility, patients come and go in a physical and living sense, which can be emotionally taxing on those who care for them, Martino-Starvaggi said, although she has to remain strong for the elderly and their families on an emotional level.

“We help the families through whatever they’re going through as well,” she said. “It’s not just the patients we’re here to support. We’re here to help and guide them and make them feel that they’re OK with the decision that they made.”

The most challenging part of the job is making sure patients have everything they need when returning home, Martino-Starvaggi said. There are sometimes patients with up to 10 health issues, and it’s up to caregivers like her to make sure their time at the short-term rehab facility is productive and restorative.

National Caregivers Month blossomed from an appreciation for health care workers. It began in 1994 by the National Family Caregiver Association. At first, it was a weeklong event, but after President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation in 1997, it turned into an annual month-long holiday.

More than 65 million people in the United States are caregivers.

“I’d say the most challenging part of the job is always worrying that you haven’t done enough,” Martino-Starvaggi said. “I still love coming to work every single day and making a difference in someone’s life in any way possible.”

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