By Chandra Wilson
Yanick, an aging woman living in Brooklyn was feeling down. Having to deal with multiple chronic health conditions understandably took a toll on her some days. Her home health aide of five years, Marie Dorviline, could tell that Yanick was not herself. That’s when a creative idea popped into her mind—something she was sure would lift Yanick’s spirits.
In a recent conversation, Yanick mentioned that she used to love to dance. That was all Marie needed to hear—she immediately sprang into action. With accompaniment from YouTube, soon Yanick and Marie were dancing and laughing in the living room. The phone rang. Yanick’s daughter, who had been concerned about her mother being in low spirits, heard a feisty voice that she wasn’t expecting. “You don’t need to call,” mother told daughter. “I’m happy now.”
Moments like this may seem small to some, but they can mean the world to patients like Yanick. Marie, a home health aide with the New York nonprofit VNS Health is one of the thousands of dedicated home health aides in the city. According to a recent study published in the journal Innovation in Aging, an astounding 34% of New Yorkers have received services from a paid home care worker. Home health aides like Marie assist their clients with personal care services, such as dressing, bathing, meal preparation and other activities of daily living. They also provide companionship. Everyday tasks like these, that many of us take for granted, often become much harder to do as people age. Home health aides like Marie become not only a lifeline to keep loved ones healthy, but in many cases can feel like a member of the family. Marie is one of a kind, and fills many roles, from friend, to advocate, to playing a key role on the health team that helps keep Yanick healthy.
Marie has accompanied Yanick to countless doctor’s appointments (where she takes meticulous notes), practiced physical therapy “homework” with her, made sure that Yanick takes her medication, and prepared hundreds of heart-healthy and diabetic meals.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their home health aide/patient relationship is Marie’s ability to read Yanick’s facial expressions and mannerisms to the point where she knows exactly what she’s thinking. “I help her speak up,” Marie said, recalling a time she saw Yanick hold her hand on her head. Marie knew something was wrong and she knew she had to help Yanick advocate for herself. “I encourage her to speak up about how she is feeling.”
Recognizing the indispensable role of home health aides, one of Yanick’s doctors at Weill Cornell, Madeline Sterling, alongside experts from the ILR School at Cornell University and Cornell Tech, recently embarked on multidisciplinary research program with the goal of heightening the value of homecare workers. The Cornell team has published several papers designed to enlighten public policymakers on the perceived value of home health aides, and this summer they put one of their ideas into action right here in New York. Among several notable highlights of their findings there is the fact that nearly 75% of participants described home health workers as “very important.”
The support system home health aides provide for their patients is unmatched. However, as rewarding as the work can be, it is not without its challenges. Many patients, especially seniors, may be resistant to getting help––whether it’s pride or they are simply frustrated by their situation. So, when Marie was asked what it takes to be a home health aide, it’s no surprise that Marie said patience. “If you do not have patience, this job is not for you.”
For Marie, the urge to help others is what motivates her to do this job. She has been called a “superhero in scrubs” because of her tireless work ethic. When the pandemic hit, adding complexity to her day-to-day activities, she never wavered from her purpose. Even when her family and friends urged her to stay home, Marie felt a duty to help Yanick. “I had to be there for her, because if I did not, then who would?”
As experts and the public increasingly recognize the incalculable value of home health aides, there is a growing consensus that they be embraced as an essential part of any health care team. Marie’s journey and the passion she demonstrates daily as she cares for and lifts up clients like Yanick, shows the vital role she plays—and offers a proven blueprint for the powerful work home health aides can accomplish.
To learn more about VNS Health and personal care services, visit https://www.vnshealth.org/home-care/personal-care/.
*For confidentiality, first name only used