karen dinnen caregiver of the year award finalist karen dinnen caregiver of the year award finalist

Caregiver With a Heart of Gold

Karen Dinnen has held a variety of jobs over the years, but there’s one thing they all have had in common: helping others.

“It started in grade school, really,” recalls Dinnen. “I worked as a candy striper and really loved working with people who needed cheering up.”

After graduating from college and starting a family, Dinnen worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), was a music teacher, ran a music studio teaching kids how to play the piano, and worked in the title industry helping people who were buying new homes. When it came time to think about retirement, Dinnen didn’t want to travel or play golf; she wanted to return to her roots of providing companionship to those in need.

“After retiring, I wanted to do something where I could really make a difference,” says Dinnen. “Being a caregiver with Right at Home has been such a gift. I’ve been doing this for five years now, and I’ve never once woken up and not wanted to go to work. It’s just so uplifting!”

Making a Difference With Attention to Detail

As a caregiver with Right at Home in Bloomington, Minnesota, Dinnen approaches working with each client as if she were caring for her own parents. She cared for both her mother and father in their old age, and feels as though she can relate to her clients and understand their perspective on life.

“It’s a gift to be able to care for others and be their person later in life,” she says. “Many of them don’t have family nearby, or at all, and I love being able to care for them.”

Dinnen’s familial touch isn’t lost on her clients; many of them recognize that she goes above and beyond to care for them or their loved ones.

“I had returned home from California to spend time with my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease,” said the son of one of Dinnen’s clients. “My brother, who lives nearby, had prepared me for how our mother and our home had changed, but the first thing I noticed when I walked into the kitchen was a beautiful array of brightly colored flowers on the back deck.”

Dinnen acknowledged that she was not the one who bought flowers for the back deck, but when she and the client were out, she would pick up flowers for the hallway and the client’s kitchen table.

“My mom had always tended (flowers) with great care,” said the client’s son. “Out of all the small details that could have been passed over, this simple act showed a depth of understanding and concern for what mattered most to my mom.”

That depth of understanding stems from the fact that Dinnen’s own mother lived with dementia, spending eight years living in a nursing home while Dinnen’s father cared for her. It’s from that experience that Dinnen began to comprehend that the little things matter, especially for those who are living with dementia.

“Sometimes people don’t realize the full effects of the disease, which can lead them to get angry or impatient,” Dinnen says. “But I treat (those who have dementia) the exact way I wanted my mom to be treated—with love and patience. I listen to them, and I never argue.”

Caring for Clients With Alzheimer’s or Other Types of Dementia

Dinnen has worked with clients in various stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia throughout her five years with Right at Home. It is not uncommon for her to befriend many of her clients, and she and her clients often discuss how the diagnosis has affected their lives.

“One client I have now is in the earlier stages of the disease, and we talk about it,” Dinnen says. “She’s really not afraid of it and is trying to do as much as she can to simply feel ‘normal’ every day. And another client has more advanced dementia, but we still have fun together. She still has her sense of adventure and is very easy to be with. She’s always up for trying new things!”

While “new things” might elicit visions of exciting bucket list activities for some of us, such as sky diving or exotic travel, Dinnen describes doing things with her client that are actually pretty mundane. From taking her out grocery shopping, to going out to lunch together, to playing dice games or puzzles, Dinnen makes these commonplace activities sound exciting—because to her clients, they are.

“If you can simply keep them engaged and out in their community, it’s very helpful to them and has a big impact on their well-being,” Dinnen says.

“Karen goes above and beyond the typical tasks of a caregiver,” says Joyce Konczyk, a licensed social worker with Volunteers of America of Minnesota. “She exceeds expectations by thinking of ways she can enhance the quality of life for our client. This may be a small thing, like making a special breakfast for her, or it may be by replacing old and worn out kitchen utensils or linens.”

Beyond Caregiving: Forging Friendships

One of Dinnen’s most memorable experiences involved a four-year friendship with an East Indian client.

“I would come on Mondays, and she and her friend would prepare these gorgeous and delicious Indian meals for us,” recalls Dinnen. “It was so nice to share a meal with her and learn more about her culture and her life experiences. We would always stop to have tea in the afternoons because that was a tradition she had continued after moving to America.”

Dinnen jokes that her client’s family told her that they were convinced that the two were a perfect match for one another, as the pair hit it off immediately. When her client passed away last year, Dinnen brought her family to the funeral, and remains in touch with her client’s family to this day.

“We had such a nice friendship,” Dinnen says. “She was so proud of her culture, and it was such a joy for me to experience it through her. She really changed my life.”

Although it can be sad to have to say goodbye to clients, Dinnen loves knowing that she played a small role in making their lives better. Even though she could be enjoying a leisurely retirement, there’s nothing else that Dinnen would want to be doing.

“I feel like it was my destiny to care for the elderly,” says Dinnen. “All of the experiences in my life have led me here. Right at Home is really a vehicle for making people’s lives better, and I love being a part of it!”

Hilary Young Author

Hilary Young is a writer dedicated to helping older Americans live healthier, more fulfilling lives. You can find her on Twitter as @hyoungcreative.

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