Ebony Jorgensen sits with a client during Thanksgiving week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

Giving thanks with selflessness: Caregivers sacrifice holiday time with family to serve elderly clients

Caregivers say they are incredibly grateful for the trust they have been given and impact they have on their clients’ lives. But they ask people to remember they often give up their own holidays to serve the some of the most vulnerable among us.

On a recent Saturday morning, Victoria Pedroza of Watsonville sat on a brown sofa next to a 73-year-old former elementary school and university computer teacher who has had Alzheimer’s disease for two decades.

She brushed her client’s thick gray hair, slowly fed her a high-calorie cashew and date energy bar, and then zipped up her jacket. After, Pedroza firmly held her hands as the two stood and swayed back and forth to Paul Simon’s, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”

Victoria Pedroza sits outside Santa Cruz Post Acute, a short-term rehabilitation and skilled nursing home, on Nov. 23, 2021.
Victoria Pedroza sits outside Santa Cruz Post Acute, a short-term rehabilitation and skilled nursing home, on Nov. 23, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pedroza, 47, a certified nursing assistant who is bilingual, has been a caregiver for more than 20 years.

“I appreciate my clients,” she said. “I learn from them and their family becomes my family. I want to understand and listen to them. But I always talk straight to them about a loved one’s condition and the care they need even if family members are overwhelmed or seem uninvolved.”

On this Thanksgiving, Pedroza and others like her in Santa Cruz County, say they are incredibly grateful for the trust they have been given and impact they have on their clients’ lives. But they also say more needs to be done to increase the training and pay of a group that is largely women of color, and for people to remember they often give up their own holidays to serve some of the most vulnerable among us.

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Caregivers working for an agency typically make $15 to $20 an hour. Those working independently can make between $18 and $35 per hour, though the top rate is rare.

The registration process for becoming a Home Care Aide in California involves a background check and filling out a few forms, though nothing in the way of formal training. Caregivers, however, may have other types of licenses that have significant training requirements.

The caregivers profiled said they often find their clients via informal means — referrals from friends, Craigslist listings or even old-fashioned bulletin boards. They said they have worked both independently as well as through an agency.

And each asked that their clients not be named for privacy reasons.

Johanne Zamora, a nursing student, sits on a bench on Nov. 23, 2021.
Johanne Zamora, a nursing student, sits on a bench on Nov. 23, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Johanne Zamora, a caregiver from Royal Oaks, is also an online student at Sacramento State University studying to be a nurse. She said she was stunned by how fast a client’s health can change. A woman she cared for died on Nov. 1 — All Saint’s Day — after seemingly being healthy a few weeks prior.

“I had to hide my tears and suck it up,” said Zamora, 20. “I have to be fully present for the client and family that is sometimes in denial.”

When she is not taking undergraduate courses, Zamora said she prefers 12-hour shifts but said it can be exhausting.

“When I am stressed out I walk with my dog at Wilder Ranch [State Park] and get lost in nature. The ocean, birds and wildlife replenish my energy and nurture my soul.”

Ebony Jorgenson and her 89-year-old client.
Ebony Jorgenson and her 89-year-old client.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Ebony Jorgensen, 50, of Aptos, regularly walks with a client on the deck of a family home that overlooks the ocean. Though she cannot walk independently and does not talk, Jorgensen said her client enjoys the outdoors, especially the sounds of the birds who settle in the nearby trees.

“I am a hypervigilant caregiver,” she said. “I need to anticipate the needs of those who can no longer explicitly express their desires such as hunger and wanting to be fed, or that they are cold and need a sweater or gloves. And I need to help them use the bathroom because they can no longer completely navigate the activity.”

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Still, there are nonverbal clues to be honored.

“I look for facial clues or bodily movements that let me know what I need to do to help them feel comfortable,” Jorgensen said. “And if they are anxious I redirect and help them feel at ease. Sometimes vanilla ice cream is the best remedy and other times rubbing their shoulders or feet helps.”

Yet Jorgensen doesn’t think the larger society appreciates the nuances of the work and how caregivers are attentive to a client’s needs. For a client with Parkinson’s disease and poor circulation who is often cold, she warms up their pajamas in the clothes dryer before she puts them on and makes sure she has easy access to her favorite slippers. Jorgenson always makes sure that the four remote controls are in the same place.

Ebony Jorgenson wants to see changes in her profession.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Caregivers are empathetic and attentive, but they are also under-appreciated, undervalued, and overlooked until a family is in crisis and worried about a loved one’s care, Jorgensen said. Regardless of the pay and treatment, she said the job is not for everyone.

“The profession needs to be transformed and caregivers that are verbally or even physically abusive because of their own personal problems need to leave the profession,” she said.

And a client’s family can also be insensitive and expect caregivers to arrive early or to work later with little notice and without extra pay. Too often, she said, they expect a caregiver to do work that may not be an agreed part of their responsibilities such as picking up the family laundry, personal shopping or house cleaning.

Jorgensen said she’d like to see more training, improved pay, and benefits as well as a type of substitute service to ensure that caregivers who are sick or have unexpected family responsibilities can be readily replaced temporarily to ensure continual and expert care of clients.

Despite the issues and struggles, each said they felt the profession is a calling. Pedroza, a mother of three, said her Catholic faith is a source of strength.

Every morning when I awake, I pray that I will have the wisdom, strength and skill to care for and guide my patients. When a patient is dying I never leave them; I work to ensure that they have a peaceful death. When I know their spirit has left their body, I know they will continue to be at peace.

“Every morning when I awake, I pray that I will have the wisdom, strength and skill to care for and guide my patients,” she said. “When a patient is dying I never leave them; I work to ensure that they have a peaceful death. When I know their spirit has left their body, I know they will continue to be at peace.”

A 103-year-old patient reinforced Pedroza’s philosophy as she faces her own challenges after immigrating to the United States.

“This vibrant but extraordinary older and knowing woman said that her perspective is not complicated,” Pedroza said. “Don’t worry and stress out about the bumps in the road that you can’t avoid or do anything about. And remember most problems can be fixed.”