Lisa Harwell grew up in a big Irish family outside of Boston, Massachusetts. As the youngest of six kids, she watched her mother, who was a nursing supervisor at a nearby nursing home, threaten her siblings with coming to work with her for the day if they misbehaved. Harwell was grounded for the first time at age 11, and her punishment, like her siblings before her, was to accompany her mom to work.
It didn’t take long, however, for her mother to realize her plan had backfired; Harwell loved working with the older people in the nursing home. It wasn’t a punishment at all — it was a calling. Harwell worked at the nursing home with her mother until she graduated high school.
“I loved working with older people,” says Harwell. “But after I graduated, I went out on my own to find adventure. I traveled all over the country, met interesting people and had some wild experiences. It was really wonderful!”
Sadly, a family tragedy brought Harwell back home to Massachusetts where she eventually settled down and had three children.
A Detour on the Way Back to Caregiving
At the age of 40, with her kids all in school, Harwell decided to get her barber license. She went to work at a barber shop, but after four years, she was looking for more.
“It was like fate,” she says. “I saw an ad for Right at Home and was drawn to it immediately because of my past experience. I took a detour, but ended up coming back to caregiving later in life. I really love it.”
Harwell became a professional caregiver with Right at Home Boston Metro West 11 years ago and has had no regrets since. She still has her hand in a few other fires as well — in addition to working full shifts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for Right at Home, Harwell works at a barber shop on Friday and Saturday, and bartends at a local bar on Wednesday night.
“I work a lot, but I love what I do, which is so important,” she says. “Life is a journey, and it’s not as beautiful if you have to go through it alone. Other people are what make my journey worth it.”
Driven by Empathy and Love
Harwell acknowledges that as much as she loves her job, it’s not always easy. In fact, she warned me at the start of our interview that she’s been known to get emotional when talking about her clients and what they’ve been through in their lives.
“There are lots of times when I get in my car and cry after leaving a client’s house,” says Harwell. “But I get it out, then move on. I come into their lives because their health is failing in some capacity, but I get glimpses of what their lives have been like — filled with love, laughter, adventure, family and hobbies. It’s so nice to be able to see those things in all of them.”
Harwell is also tuned in to the fact that her job requires her to spend time in other people’s homes, and she goes out of her way to do things the way her clients want them to be done to show her respect.
“I educate myself about my clients before walking into their homes,” says Harwell. “Whether they have an illness or sickness, or have a favorite meal, or even like a certain type of music, I try to get to know them as much as possible so they feel comfortable when I arrive.”
When Harwell encounters clients who are suffering, she does her best to lighten the situation, trying to create more fun.
“I’ll try to get them out in the fresh air, or to move their bodies, which typically helps,” Harwell says. “I’ll play music and we’ll start dancing, or we’ll go for walks outside, or I’ll even take them on a little outing if I can. I try to find the best of every situation, find a way to turn the situation around for them, even if it’s just for a short while.”
Beyond the Call of Duty
Harwell was recently selected to be a member of the Caregivers Council, a new initiative organized by her office, which helps identify issues caregivers encounter every day; its members then leverage their collective experience to derive possible solutions.
Her fellow caregivers and clients consider Harwell resourceful, but Harwell credits her success to teamwork at Right at Home. “I’m thankful to have help from a group of good people in the office,” says Harwell. For example, when she observed that a client needed hearing aids, and another even needed mattresses, she reached out to her office for behind-the-scene coordination to deliver the resources.
“If they need it, I will get it for them,” Harwell says. “I had a 91-year-old client recently tell me that she had never had a pedicure, and I couldn’t believe it! So I took her to her first pedicure, and afterwards we went to visit her late husband’s grave. She had the most spectacular day, but for me, it wasn’t a big deal. It’s the simple, little things that matter most to people.”
One of her clients doesn’t get out much, so Harwell treats him to professional haircuts at home thanks to her skills as a barber, which feels like an indulgence to the client. She also has a habit of going to the dollar store to buy a dozen assorted balloons when one of her clients hits a milestone birthday.
“I tie the balloons to the client’s mailbox, or put a weight on them and place them outside their window where they can see them,” Harwell says. “It always makes them smile!”
And for Harwell, smiles from clients are the greatest gifts she can receive.