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Published By Hilary Young on September 19, 2017

Standing 6 feet tall, Jean Henke is strong in both body and heart—a winning combination when caring for those with physical disabilities. Jean is also the kind of person who is willing to put a client’s needs over her own, so it’s no wonder that when her boss at Right at Home Sarasota, Michael Juceam, asked if she would be willing to work with a client in the pool, she enthusiastically said “yes.”

It’s this kind of selflessness mixed with compassion, patience and determination that earned her a spot as a finalist for Right at Home’s Caregiver of the Year.

The Accidental Caregiver

Growing up on a lake in Michigan, Jean was a natural in the water. She loved to swim with her three brothers when they were young and eventually joined her high school swim team. Little did she know that she would one day find a career that would allow her to spend time in the pool!

Life eventually brought Jean from Michigan down to Sarasota, Florida, when her parents retired. While getting settled in her new sunshine-filled life, a neighbor asked Jean if Jean would consider caring for her since her adult children lived far away and she did not want to leave her home. Jean agreed and spent three years caring for her neighbor like she was Jean’s own mother. When the neighbor passed away, Jean’s mom encouraged Jean to make her foray into caregiving official, so Jean signed up for a course through the American Red Cross to become a Certified Nurse Assistant.

With 120 hours of classroom time and clinical work under her belt, Jean became a professional caregiver and has never looked back. In the two years she has been with Right at Home, Jean says that she could not be happier with her accidental career choice.

When Jean’s father passed away this past July, her co-workers at Right at Home planted a tree in his honor. “I knew they did that for clients, but I didn’t know they would do something like that for caregivers, too,” says Jean. “It’s really like being part of a big, happy family.”

Diving In With Clients

When Jean started working for Right at Home, she was matched with a client who needed to swim, which other caregivers were hesitant to do. But Jean embraced the opportunity to get back in the water, saying that she puts a client’s needs before her own, and she doesn’t mind getting wet.

“I walk into every client’s home with one thing in mind,” Jean says. “To treat them like your own family.”

And she’s amazed by how well her clients respond to being in the water. Having worked with clients who are recovering from strokes, heart attacks and old polio injuries, Jean has found that being in the pool makes them feel like they have reclaimed part of their lives, helping them feel free and relaxed.

She was once working with a client in the pool when she was approached by a stranger who was moved by the amount of compassion that Jean exhibited with her client. The stranger went on to hire Jean through Right at Home to care for her husband, who is wheelchair-bound. Jean can skillfully lift him from the wheelchair to the pool and then back into the wheelchair when they are done exercising.

“Her strength and the way she transfers me makes me feel perfectly safe and respected,” said the client.

Going Above and Beyond

Jean is driven by the desire to make the lives of her clients better. One client who was recovering from a stroke swam a record-breaking 51 laps in the pool with Jean and felt proud and triumphant when they finished. Another client who had recently had a heart attack needed help adding air to the tires of his car, and Jean was happy to oblige.

“I am the type of person who’s not afraid to go outside the box,” says Jean. “But I could not do what I do every day without the amazing Right at Home team behind me.”

So, perhaps we should also add “humility” to the long list of positive traits Jean exhibits.

Hilary Young is a writer dedicated to helping older Americans live healthier, more fulfilling lives. She currently blogs for HuffPost50Fifty Is The New Fifty and Medical Guardian. You can find her on Twitter as @hyoungcreative.

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