Heart of Home Care Award: Friends for life

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Suzanne Retter (right) with VHA nurse Jill Lindo (left) at caregiver luncheon where Suzanne was honoured for caring for her friend Bert.

A hand carved wooden cane leans casually in the corner of Suzanne Retter’s homey and comfortable two bedroom apartment in Oshawa. On the table, there’s a well-used, sturdy-looking camera keeping an observant yet patient eye on the dining room… Though Suzanne’s good friend Bert is nowhere to be found—having passed away in February of 2016—the energy of his presence is palpable. “He just had this magnetic personality,” says Suzanne wistfully. “People just gravitated towards him.”

It was that magnetism that helped Bert and Suzanne bond instantly six years ago when they met online in a “seeking friendship” listing. Both had a shared love of photography and enjoyed taking road trips north to explore Ontario’s rugged, vast and tranquil landscapes. There’s a certain glimmer in Suzanne’s eye when she talks about these trips and remembers Bert’s pure joy of witnessing snow or the rocky Canadian Shield for the first time. “He was like a child discovering something,” she says, reflecting on how in-the-moment Bert—a life-long traveler originally from Tobago—lived.

Bert – a life-long traveler - was originally from Tobago.
Bert – a life-long traveler – was originally from Tobago.

But his adventurous life suddenly took a tragic turn on his 63rd birthday when Bert received heartbreaking news: he had Stage 4 cancer. While he came to terms with the diagnosis and determined how to spend what little time he had left, one thing was clear: he didn’t want to be cooped up in a sterile hospital room. The beds were too small for his commanding stature, the environment too stifled for his easygoing personality. But as a retail sales associate, money was tight. Bert also had no family in Canada to support him and it became apparent that he was going to need round-the-clock care as his condition worsened. Though devastated by the news, Suzanne didn’t hesitate—she offered Bert a room in her home and put her career as a real estate agent on hold to care for her dear friend. He died just three and a half months later. “In his last days he felt safe, he felt comforted and loved. I made sure of that,” says Suzanne.

While Suzanne is modest about her caregiving role, Jill Lindo, Bert’s home care nurse, felt differently; “Suzanne is truly an amazing woman,” she says. Jill was so impressed by Suzanne’s commitment to supporting Bert that she nominated Suzanne for VHA Home HealthCare’s Heart of Home Care Award—an honour which celebrates unpaid Ontario caregivers who go above and beyond to care for a loved one. In May 2016, she won the award and enjoyed an afternoon off in downtown Toronto taking in a lunch with other caregivers and a special performance by R & B singer Jully Black.

While Suzanne was flattered by the win she was also surprised that her care for Bert seemed special to others. “You take care of people that you love,” says Suzanne matter-of-factly. “It’s the human thing to do…It was an honour and a privilege.” You can visit Suzanne and Bert’s video story online at http://bit.ly/HeartSuzanne .

Suzanne’s Caregiving Tips:

  • Take advantage of any help you are offered.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t understand what the doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, etc. are telling you, ask clarifying questions until you get it.
  • Try to attend all appointments with your loved one if possible and be sure to take notes. There is a lot going on and much to retain so writing things down will ensure you don’t forget important details.
  • Be patient with your loved one. It’s a challenging time for everyone involved. If you’re feeling frustrated, exhausted, cranky (and you probably will at times) take a deep breath and remember the big picture and how important your role is within it.
  • Be your loved one’s advocate. Ask your loved one what they want and do your best to make it happen

For more caregiver tips and information visit www.familycaregiving.ca

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