While 1970s television mothers Carol Brady (“The Brady Bunch”) and Shirley Partridge (“The Partridge Family”) worked to corral their TV kids, Judy Nowak was investing her weekends with her teen son, Steve, cleaning, repairing and painting homes to sell or rent. Raised with humble beginnings as a child of Irish immigrants, Judy married and raised Steve and daughter, Susan, while building her career as a property investor and realtor, and eventually a broker and owner of a real estate company.
“Even though my mom was financially successful, she still wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty,” Steve Nowak recalls. “We had a nice car and house, but her motto was, ‘Kmart—if they don’t have it, you don’t need it.’ No shopping malls for us.’”
But in the early 1980s, life swerved in another direction for the Nowaks. Judy stepped away from her career to care for her husband during his last year of battling colon cancer. “Mom never regretted giving it all up for her husband and family,” Steve says of his compassionate and determined mother. After her husband passed at age 51, Judy worked to rebuild her business when another blow assailed the family. In December 1986, Judy was also diagnosed with colon cancer.
Steve was a sophomore in college living at home in Canton, Ohio, and Susan was a sophomore in high school. An in-home caregiver stepped in to help, and Steve remembers how the caregiver readily assisted his family through their time of holding onto life, yet letting go as Judy was failing quickly. Steve fondly remembers the caregiver for the comfort-food meals and conversation she dished up.
Caregiver Extending Kindness and Stability
“My sister and I would come home from school and were so appreciative of a hot meal where we could eat together and talk,” Steve says. “The meal I remember the most was the caregiver’s tuna casserole she made with elbow macaroni. We had conversations about Mom’s sickness to conversations about everyday stuff like fast-food restaurants. I remember the caregiver crying and saying she was happy she could care for my mom. Our caregiver brought kindness and stability to my sister and me, as well.”
Judy died at age 47, four months after her cancer diagnosis, but her resiliency and work ethic live on in Steve, who in 2008 with his wife, Wendy, opened the Right at Home senior care business for the Stark County region around Canton.
As Mother’s Day approaches, Steve looks back on his care for his mother, who during the night would need bathroom assistance and would buzz Steve on their home intercom system. He relates to other family caregivers who sleep with one eye open, waiting to respond to the next care need. For the young business major, juggling college and his mom’s declining health got to be too much. He was attending classes, studying, paying bills, running the house, mowing the yard, and as Steve explains, “It didn’t take long before I got burned out.”
Taking Care of Families, Too
From his own experience of caregiving for his mother, Steve emphasizes the importance of helping families through the rigors and realities of caring well for a loved one at home. “I tell people we do two things with Right at Home,” Steve explains. “We take care of seniors and we take care of the people who are trying to take care of the seniors. To me, that is never more evident than in a hospice situation.
“Some of the most burned-out people we have seen in our 10 years with Right at Home are people who are trying to take care of a dying relative,” Steve continues. “It’s not just two or three hard days. It’s good days, bad days, hospital stays, nonhospital stays. It’s making the hard decisions like I did at age 20 signing ‘do not resuscitate’ papers.”
Steve’s caring for his mother has influenced how his own team of caregivers and office staff go beyond caring just for seniors and adults with disabilities. “We help out families,” Steve says. “People think they can do the caregiving alone, but it’s the most emotionally taxing thing they will come across.”
A Mother’s Day Tribute
In tune with the practical and emotional needs of his clients and their families, Steve reflects on the strength, faith and compassion of his own mom, who was also a go-getter in her career. Now that he’s a business entrepreneur himself, Steve wishes he could talk shop with his mom.
“If my mom were here, I’d love to talk about my business with her more than anyone else in the world,” says Steve. “She’d be able to give me advice, and she’d be the most excited when we have a good week of business. She’d be that coach to really help and encourage. I turned 51 this past year, and I’ve outlived both of my parents, so it really makes you appreciate how we are all on borrowed time and we are to make the most of life.”
About the Author
An award-winning journalist who has documented stories in nearly 20 countries, Beth Lueders is an author, writer and speaker who frequently reports on diverse topics, including aging and health issues for both U.S. and international corporations.