Jefferson Award winners

Nurses educate elderly about health, safety

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There are no forms to fill out. Instead, there's a quiet conversation over coffee with a registered nurse who adds a double cream of compassion and confidentiality.

Plus regular blood pressure screenings, personalized health assessments, clear explanations about medications and blood work, as well as tips on managing a chronic disease.

That's what 11 nurses have offered older residents of Pittsburgh at six urban senior centers for eight years.

The volunteers of the Retired Nurses Working in Neighborhoods program -- known as RN-WIN -- will receive the Jefferson Awards of Public Service Team Award, a relatively new category that recognizes group efforts. Their services are provided through Duquesne University's Community Based Health & Wellness Center for Older Adults.

The group will be honored Tuesday at an award ceremony with 50 Jefferson Award winners for 2013. Because of the recognition, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will donate $1,000 to Duquesne University on the group's behalf. The Post-Gazette administers the local Jefferson program with sponsorship by Highmark and BNY Mellon.

Two of the volunteers in the program are nurse practitioners who are on call if their colleagues need help. Among the pioneers of this initiative were Kay Dieckmann, an Upper St. Clair woman whose 40-plus years of experience includes a 21-year stint with the Visiting Nurse Association and supervising staff at The Baptist Home in Bethel Park.

The other pathfinder was Filomena Varvaro, an energetic lady from West View with more degrees than a thermometer. Mrs. Varvaro, who earned her certificate in gerontology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2009, also holds a doctorate in nursing.

In 2006, these dynamos were the first two volunteers in the program, launched by Duquesne University School of Nursing Community Based Health & Wellness Center for Older Adults. The women were recruited by Lenore K. Resick, a clinical professor of nursing and the program's executive director.

On one Friday each month, Mrs. Dieckmann visits the Greenfield senior center with Esther Rubin of Squirrel Hill, her buddy and fellow nurse. The regulars keep the two nurses busy from the moment they arrive until they leave at lunchtime.

"They just need a kind ear to hear their concerns," Mrs. Dieckmann said, adding that sometimes she needs an interpreter to help communicate with Asian people who speak Mandarin or Cantonese.

"You have to get their permission to use an interpreter," she added.

To advocate for her clients or clarify a question, Mrs. Dieckmann will call doctors, family members and pharmacists. After one woman, who was recently widowed, said she was afraid to be alone at home, Mrs. Dieckmann called her son and asked him to look in on his mother that day.

Mrs. Varvaro takes a bus from her West View home to visit the South Side Market House, the site of a senior citizen center.

"I've always been interested in patient teaching and patient care," she said, adding that on each visit, she speaks for seven minutes on a particular topic, such as low blood sugar or arthritis.

The initiative gained momentum between 2007 and 2009 with a $150,000 grant from the Ryan Memorial Foundation, a Wisconsin charity that supports Catholic institutions. That funding allowed Ms. Resick to hire Betty J. Kruman, the project director.

Deploying nurses to educate and advocate for older people is an outgrowth of a program Ms. Resick began in the city's Hill District in 1995. That's the year she opened a nursing center at K. Leroy Irvis Towers, a residential apartment building for seniors in the Hill District.

Other Duquesne nursing professors worked to open centers in Mount Oliver and the South Side Market House.

"From that, we initiated a partnership with CitiParks to open up the other centers," Ms. Resick said.

Duquesne's student nurses work side by side with the experienced volunteer nurses at the various sites.

"They learn firsthand not just skills but also the art of nursing -- how to talk to a client, how to have them relax and understand. How to interview a person and how to put them at ease and how to have the person to be able to express what health and wellness means to them. You can take what you've learned in the classroom and apply it," Ms. Resick said.

So far, 24 volunteer nurses have participated while 11 remain active.

Joan Lockhart, clinical professor of nursing and associate dean for academic affairs at Duquesne University, likes the results.

"They have developed more innovative strategies for caring for the underserved elderly by helping them maintain their health or managing chronic disease. Leni Resick is good at coming up with new ideas," she said.

Mrs. Dieckmann continues to volunteer because the people she meets inspire her.

"They make me smile," she said. "I'm there to help them. but they, in turn, enrich me. They encourage me as I get older. They are an example to me of how I want to be at their age."

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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