george mattera (L) Jerry Lawson (R) george mattera (L) Jerry Lawson (R)

Finding Life’s Purpose After the End of Spousal Caregiving

George Mattera was used to being in a hospital environment—for his entire adult life he had worked as a CT scan technician. But when his wife was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, everything changed. He took time off work to care for her at the end, providing her with the care she needed to be comfortable at home. After his wife passed away in 2008, George found it difficult to return to work—he wanted to find something more meaningful to do with his life.

Just five years shy of retirement, George decided to take time off and re-evaluate what he wanted to do with the rest of his time on this planet. He realized that he wanted to stay in the medical field but have more interaction with people, so he decided to go back to school to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA).

“What good is it to just retire and sit around all the time?” asks George. “I’d so much rather be of service to people. I have no regrets about it; this was absolutely the best thing for me. I’ve gotten to have a whole new experience in this life.”

Making Meaningful Connections

After becoming a CNA, George went to work at a rehab facility, where he saw what seemed like a revolving door of patients throughout the day. Not only was it exhausting, but it also wasn’t as rewarding as he might have hoped.

“There really wasn’t enough one-on-one time with clients,” says George. “I was starting to burn out, so I decided to try home care instead to make a bigger impact on my clients’ lives.”

He started working for the Right at Home office in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, in December 2016 and finally began to feel as though life had brought him to exactly where he was meant to be. George has worked with a variety of clients, and what he loves the most is the meaningful connections he has made with the clients and their families.

“At the beginning, you don’t know them and they don’t know you—it’s sort of like a marriage,” says George. “You have to take time to get to know people. After a while, you become part of the family. It’s really very humbling to be invited into someone else’s home and life. It’s a huge honor for me.”

George offers a caveat to those who are thinking about getting into caregiving: You can’t be motivated by money. You have to be motivated by empathy, patience and a desire to really become involved with other people in order to develop deeper connections with them. “When you treat people with respect and dignity, you’ll get it right back from them, and it’s really rewarding,” George says.

Making an Impact With Alzheimer’s Care

In his short time as a caregiver, George has made a significant impact on his clients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. He’s been following the GEMS® approach to caring for clients with Alzheimer’s disease, which was developed by occupational therapist and educator Teepa Snow. The method provides caregivers with an easy system to characterize and track the evolution of the disease. The method uses different gemstones—sapphire, diamond, emerald, amber, ruby and pearl—to categorize the different stages of the disease and personalize the experience of memory care. The GEMS® method helps caregivers continue to see “individuals as precious, unique and capable” in order to encourage a care partnership through the process.

“I’ve learned a lot about the GEMS method and use it when I’m first assessing and starting off with a new client,” says George. “Your power of observation must be very astute; you can learn a lot just by paying attention.”

Once George has identified the needs of his clients struggling with memory loss, he utilizes tools he’s developed to help himself and his client cope with the new situation and the changes that are taking place.

“I like to think that I can take care of anyone and everyone,” says George. “So when it comes to caring for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, I have a few rules that I follow: One, never get into an argument with them. Instead, find ways to redirect them or change the subject. Two, find their triggers and make a conscious effort never to push their buttons. And, three, if you can laugh with them, not at them, it can be a really good thing. Laughter really is the best medicine!”

Finding Purpose Later in Life

Life changed for George in so many ways after losing his wife to breast cancer, but he never could have imagined stepping away from his career as a CT technician to become a professional caregiver. Life is not always linear, and if you are open to taking some risks, you might find that you end up exactly where you are meant to be.

George’s courage and ability to overcome personal tragedy and change his life as a 60-something is a remarkable lesson for so many, especially his three sons.

“I really understand what it’s like to be on the other end of the caregiving experience, so I have total compassion for my clients and their families,” says George. “I always just want to help make everything better for the people around me.”

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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