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AV Home Care, a culture of giving

Mrs. Cote talks with Mrs. Bockman, one of her home care providers, as she cleaned the house. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
July 29, 2009
BERLIN — Lucille Cote has lived in the same house for 61 years.

"Sixty-one good years," she said.

It's the same house she moved into in 1948 when she married her husband. He grew up next door and bought the house after World War Two. She was a waitress, he was a foreman for the city public works department. When they retired they built a ceramics studio on the ground floor, and Mrs. Cote taught classes.

"We were never separated for 61 years," she said.

Now, however, she is alone; her husband passed away in 2007 at 94. Her home is what she has left of those 61 good years.

"I can't leave it," she said, "too many memories."

Photographs and paintings of family members cover her walls. The television her grandson bought her sits across from two chairs in the living room.

Mrs. Cote sat in one of the chairs, her recliner, raising the footrest and occasionally doing exercises for her legs. She can't leave her house on her own because she has trouble walking. She can't do her own shopping, her own cleaning or her own housework. Her niece who lives next door takes her out on weekends, but Monday to Friday her house may as well be an island.

But Mrs. Cote is still able to see it as her home, not her cage.

That's because Mrs. Cote is one of more than 300 clients assisted by Androscoggin Valley Home Care. AVHC is made up of women who clean for, shop for and care for elderly and disabled residents in the region. They go into their homes and provide a connection between the residents and the outside community. They provide a safety net.

"I couldn't do it without them," Mrs. Cote said. "If I should lose them I think I should give up."

AVHC has been in Berlin for more than 30 years. It started in 1975 as a way to provide local people with in-home care providers.

Many elderly people don't want to move out of their houses into nursing homes.

"Our mission is to make sure we can facilitate that," said Margo Sullivan, AVHC executive director.

To that end, home care providers do whatever work clients can't do. They clean, they shop, they pick up around the house.

"I don't have to say a thing to them," Mrs. Cote said. "I couldn't do it without them."

Home care providers not only do shopping and pick up; they are also a barometer for a client's health.

"It's not just cleaning the house," said Helen Gagne, AVHC client services coordinator. Home care providers also get to know the personalities of the clients, and when something seems strange they contact their supervisors.

There are five nurses, all in supervisory roles who can then relay that information on to family or health care providers.

"When you think of a safety net, there is none finer," said Mrs. Sullivan.

"I don't worry about anything with these girls," said Mrs. Cote. "They can tell when I have a bad day."

When Karen Bockman, one of AVHC's home care providers, arrives at Mrs. Cote's they sound like old friends. Mrs. Bockman asks Mrs. Cote about her family as she picks up around the house. Mrs. Cote smiles as she talks.

Mrs. Sullivan said this type of care is important for Berlin's aging population. The daily contact home care providers have with clients keeps an eye on them and also keeps them stimulated, connected to the community.

"We want them to to stay home if that's their choice," Mrs. Gagne said.

Living at home is a more economical choice for many elderly.

"It is infinitely less expensive to have them live in their homes," Mrs. Sullivan said; $16,000 a year as compared to $60,000. Some people need more care than the home care providers can give, but for those who don't it is a great option she said.

Much of the money for AVHC services comes from Medicare, Medicaid and other state programs, so funding is always tight. Mrs. Sullivan said they recently stated doing private home cleanings to help boost their income to offset their expensive. There are other home care providers locally, but they are for-profit companies. Their goal is to make money. AVHC, instead, is mission driven to provide excellent care instead of make money.

But while providing care to elderly and disabled they provide a significant number of jobs along the way.

"People think of us as this itty-bitty organization," Mrs. Sullivan said, "(but) we have 75 staff people."

Most are part-time employees, which allows employees to have flexible hours. The office staff of nine has 150 years of combined history with the organization. Last year AVHC home care providers drove 67,000 miles and worked 72,000 hours, helping people from Groveton to Shelburne. The employees, Mrs. Gagne said, are what make the difference.

"They are an excellent product," she said.

Mrs. Cote agreed. She said over and over how wonderful the women were.

And it isn't for everyone.

"This is rigorous, emotionally taxing work," Mrs. Sullivan said. Many clients die or move into a 24-hour-care facilities. Employees have to be careful not to get too close; there is only so much they can do.

But for Mrs. Cote, what they do is enough. Her smile said it all.

Martin Lord Osman
Coos County Commissioners
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