Naples Senior Center launches family caregiver help amid COVID-19 pandemic

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

Jean Murphy sits in front of a laptop in her home, blowing softly into a toy recorder like a child in a virtual music class run by Naples Senior Center.

The 92-year-old with dementia no longer has activities and friends to see outside of her home because of COVID-19.

The senior center — her lifeline to engagement with others — canceled all on-site programs and converted them to virtual ones for the safety of its vulnerable clients.

Jean Murphy, 92, participates in a Naples Senior Center on-line class, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, at her home in East Naples.

It’s Murphy’s daughter and full-time caregiver for the past six years, Mary Jo Smith, who has shouldered the consequences of her mother being home all the time.

Recently, the center’s leadership came up with a solution to help its burdened family caregivers.

The senior center is providing four hours of home health care once a week to 28 dementia clients so the family caregivers get a break.

There is no charge to the families for the six-month program and they must be existing clients.

“It took me two seconds to say ‘yes,’”  said Smith, 62. “I can spend quality time with my husband. It allows us to go have lunch with friends. My husband and I play pickleball. It gives us time to have our own life.”

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Jaclynn Faffer, president and CEO of the center, said the service is filling a crucial need among family caregivers.

“I realized that we were doing a lot for the people in our dementia respite program, the one thing we were missing was respite for caregivers,” Faffer said.

Initially, the senior center applied for a grant with Collier County through the Coronavirus Aid and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, to cover the $75,000 cost of the home care initiative.

The program didn’t qualify for CARES funding but Faffer wasn’t deterred. She put out a call for support to the center’s board of directors in late September.

“By the next morning I had the money,” Faffer said. 

The 23 board members ponied up the money personally.

The senior center retained McKenney Home Care, a Naples-based and privately-owned business, for the certified home care aides. It’s the same company that provided professional staff for the center’s dementia respite program before the COVID-19 shut down.

Patrice Magrath, co-owner of McKenney, said the service goes far to help family caregivers keep their sanity against the responsibilities and forced isolation they face.

“I give the senior center credit,” Magrath said. “It’s amazing they are doing this.”

Everything changed

Murphy came to Naples to visit her daughter in January 2015.

She never returned to her home in Chicago as the loss of her short-term memory was more pronounced, Smith said.

In her younger years, her mother had worked in a bank in Chicago and eventually was head of the training department.

“She worked until she was 72,” said Smith, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and worked as chief financial officer for a Chicago bank.

Her mother was on her own for 10 years in Chicago after Smith’s father died in 2005.

Today, Smith and her husband, John Smith, live two doors down from Murphy in a gated community in East Naples. They have a detailed system to care for Murphy who is still able to live independently.

There are four cameras in Murphy’s home to track her movements when Smith or her husband cannot be present.

There are white boards in different rooms with reminders to help Murphy do things on her own.

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For a while Murphy could ride Collier County’s para-transit bus to the senior center, located at 5025 Castello Drive in Naples. Smith said the drivers were diligent keeping tabs on her mother and her destination.

By 2018 after her mother had a mini-stroke, Smith said her reliance on the para-transit bus had to end, further eroding her mother’s independence.

Her mother’s short-term memory is gone now and the long-term memory is diminishing.

Every morning, Murphy is able to take a walk by herself around the quiet neighborhood for 20 minutes, wearing a tracking device so Smith can see her progress and call if necessary.

Four days a week, a paid helper takes Murphy for coffee at McDonald’s, to Publix or on other errands. Smith is determined to keep her mother as engaged as possible.

“As much socialization I can give mom, the better,” she said.

Murphy does two hours of virtual programs a day, like the music class and a brain fitness session, offered through the senior center.

“It is huge to be able to see someone with mom’s restrictions get such joy,” Smith said. “She is clapping and smiling. She is engaging and she is happy.”

With the recent start of the home care service, Smith requested the weekly help come from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m.

Getting people with dementia to eat is challenging and the home care aide can get that done.

The help has been immeasurable to Smith’s well-being

“It is four hours that I don’t have to worry about (mom),” she said. “It is like a mental vacation.”

Her mother doesn’t comprehend why the home health aide is there.

“She (asks) why is this person here?” Smith said. “I said this person is coming for me.”

Joanne Freeborn, left, a registered nurse with KcKenney Home Care provides home health services to care for Jean Murphy, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, at Murphy's home in East Naples.