1999 Caregiver of the Year Winner: Donna Baldwin, Levittown, Penn.


1999 Caregiver of the Year Winner: Donna Baldwin, Levittown, Penn.

Caree: Donna's mother, who suffered a stroke 13 1/2 years ago. Her mother has a feeding tube and requires total care.

Nominator: Mirca Liberti, co-founder, Children of Aging Parents, Levittown, Pa. Excerpt from nominating letter: She is a model, someone who has time for everyone, but does not neglect her major role of caregiving. She emulates love and friendship. Caregivers look up to her; she is a true facilitator to whom people turn to for help.

Hardest part of caregiving: Tending to my mom's personal needs, dealing with the incontinence. When you get to this point, it's hard, it takes a while to get used to it. After the first year, I got used to it.

Advice I wish I received when I first started caregiving: You make a choice, this is what I've learned. There are many choices, my choice was to bring Mom home from nursing home. I knew I would give up many things, like working. If I choose to go to work, then I couldn't care for mom at home.

When I feeling stressed out, I: In the summer, I like to garden. I volunteer with CAPS (Children of Aging Parents). I have very goods friends, some of whom are caregivers. It's always good to vent. My husband is a good listener.

Proudest achievement in my life: My mother, even though she's silent, taught me not to be so materialistic. I find pleasure in people, plants and pets: The three "p's" for living.

Life lesson learned as a result of caregiving: This (her mother's stroke and subsequent care needs) taught me a lot about life. My mother used to say, "All I want is my health." I used to think that was ridiculous. I have had time to reassess myself, not reinvent myself. I am grateful for every day. I am fortunate enough to have a great marriage, because this could have destroyed my marriage. It works for me, but it's not for everybody.

The legacy I would leave to another family caregiver: This is a labor of love. Jump in with both feet. And, there's always an alternative.

My wish for my family in 2000: To have health, peace and harmony.

Donna Baldwin readily admits to this: Fourteen years ago, she couldn't keep a plant in her home alive. So, she filled her home with plastic plants.

Now, only one plastic plant adorns her home, serving as a reminder of what was. A little over thirteen years ago, Donna's mother moved into her home, joined her husband and their two sons, then nine and 16 years old. And, since then, Donna has had live plants in her home, all of which have flourished.

Fourteen years ago, Donna never thought a pet would fit into the family's home and routine. Then, after her mother moved into their home, a beagle joined the family, a companion for her sons for whom she knew she would not have as much time. The beagle was only the beginning: a rabbit, hamsters, goldfish, birds, and lizards followed over the years.

Life, and living for the moment, is the feeling that permeates the Baldwin household. "After the stroke, my mom was given only three months to live," Donna says. "So this is rather remarkable."

After her mother's stroke, one doctor told Donna to put her mother in a nursing and go on with her life. She placed her mother in a nursing home for three months, visiting every day, twice a day. But because "what they were doing there, I could do at home," she brought her mother home.

The first year of caring for her mother was the true test for Donna. Through perseverance, she learned to deal with her mother's incontinence. And then, on the advice of a health care professional concerned that Donna may burn out, she enrolled her mother in an adult day care center, six hours a day, five days a week. Donna used those six hours to run errands, to visit friends, to sleep.

For Donna, she flourished in her caregiving role--as her plants attest. And, because she wants other caregivers to have just as positive and profound an experience, Donna speaks regularly, and honestly, about her experiences. She's been interviewed by newspapers and magazines, and has made several television appearances, on local shows in Philadelphia, near her home, and on national shows, such as Sally Jessy Raphael. She is active in Children of Aging Parents, a national network of support groups, encouraging other family caregivers, and helping them find their way, helping them to develop into the role of family caregiver with which they feel comfortable.

Donna has been a strong voice for family caregivers, helping educate non-caregivers about the experience, about what help and services are needed to ensure a successful experience for both family caregiver and care recipient. And, Donna lives her word: Her mother has always been an active part of the household, attending parties and get-togethers and accompanying the family on day excursions--even on a speed boat.

"My mother hated water and she hated boats, but we were going to out on a friend's boat. So she came with us," Donna says. "She sat in front of my husband who had both arms around her to keep her safe. When the boat started, my mother, who rarely spoke, said loud and clear: 'Oh, God.'

"I really believe my mother has done more living, now, here, with me after her stroke, than she ever did before."

Last year, when her mother stopped bearing weight on her legs, Donna couldn't transfer her into the car, so the day care had to end; other transportation alternatives were not available. "It's a whole new ball game," Donna admits. "I've had to find ways to take care of her, to keep my stress level down and to keep up with my activities. I have managed."

Changing her caregiving techniques to adjust to her mother's changing care needs has been a continuous process for Donna. "I always have to change my game plan. I would find more ways to get my mother in the tub, into the car. I think I've extended things longer than they should have lasted (such as day care) because I'm always willing to try new ways to make something work. As long as I was comfortable doing these things, it was okay."

Donna acknowledges she never thought she would be a caregiver for 13 1/2 years. "I am a much happier person because of this," she says. "My mother is a big part of my life. But she is only one member of the family. I try to have time for everybody else."