03/12/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Caregiving, and All That Jazz

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A jazz singer walks into a senior center...

It was far from a joke when Zena Foster -- passionate jazz singer, compassionate home health aide -- gave a noontime show one recent Wednesday with her band at the Hamilton Senior Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. For $1.50, the over-60 crowd could get a hot meal and robust jazz standards, featuring musicians who have played with legendary guitarist Les Paul and performed for President Bill Clinton.

Photo credit: Richard Rothstein

It was a truly transformative event at the senior center, which caters to older New Yorkers who are living alone or otherwise isolated. For an hour, the cafeteria rocked to strains of "Summertime," "All of Me," and "You Are My Sunshine." Smiles were ubiquitous. Eyes were bright and fixed on the band, or misting over with joy and nostalgia. Many seniors danced, including one woman who swayed gracefully to an evocative calypso beat -- the music clearly transporting her. "I was back in the West Indies," she explained with a soft, wistful smile. Another woman, Antoinette-Marie Williams, made her motorized wheelchair almost invisible beneath her, rocking it in a companionable rhythm as she undulated head and shoulders.

It was as Zena foretold in a conversation before the concert. "When my musicians and I get together, we make things happen!" she says. "I say to my audiences, 'Another spirit is going to hit you today. Use whatever you have, walkers, canes, or push them aside, and come up and dance.'"

Sitting front and center in the standing-room-only audience, clapping and beaming with pride, was Shirley Herskowitz -- days away from her 104th birthday -- whom Zena cares for four days a week as a home health aide with my agency, Partners in Care. "Isn't she wonderful?" Mrs. Herskowitz said of her talented aide.

To some who lunch regularly at the senior center with Mrs. Herskowitz and Zena (everyone knows her by her first name), the performance came as a complete surprise. "I'm in total shock," marveled 82-year-old Edythe Zierler, who leapt to her feet and applauded fiercely at the end of each number. "I know Zena as the aide who comes here with Shirley, who watches her like a hawk and treats her like she'd treat her own mother. I am in shock today at this brilliant performance. She's a vitamin shot. This just made my day."

Working from the Heart

For Zena, the connection between caregiving and singing is natural. "I always work from my heart," she says. "When you go out there to sing, you love what you see: the people. When I work for my patients, I just fall in love with them."

She is a testament to what home care, at its very best, can achieve for people who want to live at home but because of age, illness or injury, need help to do so safely. For Mrs. Herskowitz, who broke her hip at age 98 and has had home care ever since, Zena helps with meals, dressing, bathing and toileting, and keeps the house clean.

Her caregiving goes above and beyond the physical care, says Mrs. Herskowitz's daughter, Eleanor Brown. Zena challenges her 104-year-old client and strives to keep her engaged. Each day, Zena writes in big, bold letters the day and date on a piece of paper, a tangible symbol of connection to the here and now. "Zena doesn't allow my mother to be any less than she is, the best that she is," says Mrs. Brown. "She keeps her in touch with the world and helps her achieve as much as she can at this age. If my mother forgets something, Zena will say, 'Come on now, you know that.'"

Standing five foot two -- in three-inch heels -- Zena comes from a family of singers and musicians. She has sung professionally over the years in the Catskills, throughout New York City and on a U.S. Army base in Germany, playing for the last 40 years with her talented band.

Twenty-two years ago, she needed to supplement her income as a singer and beauty consultant. She answered an advertisement to train with Partners in Care, a licensed, not-for-profit agency that provides certified home-care assistance throughout the New York metropolitan area, and the rest, as she says, is history. As she was going through the training program to care and provide companionship for those suffering from chronic debilitating illnesses or recovering from injury or surgery, she thought, "I've been doing this all my life. I'm a mother who took care of children, I took care my sisters, and I know how to keep a house spotless. I'm good at this."

Although Zena's talent and flair for song are not part of the home health aide job description, her passion and compassion for whatever she does -- including caring for her clients -- most certainly is. The results: safe care for those in need and all-important peace of mind for the family. "All of us who are related to my mother can live our lives because Zena's around," says Mrs. Brown, who attended Wednesday's show and brought celebratory pink roses for both her mother and Zena. "For us, our time with our aging parent can be about fun and companionship, not just care."

Jazzing Up Every Day Life

While her clients are both over 100, Zena encourages them to sing, dance and look their best. "Every day, a little something happens," she says. Here are tips for "jazzing" things up when you're caring for an aging parent, spouse, friend or neighbor:

  1. Infuse the energy of song into the day. Research shows that singing may have positive effects on blood pressure, mood and stress. Find out your patient or loved one's favorite kind of music -- and tune in. Or sing a few bars yourself of a familiar tune.
  2. Dance a little, too -- even if it's just moving from side to side, feet planted. For those with limited mobility, a little hip-shaking goes a long way. Zena encourages Mrs. Herskowitz, who uses a walker, to put a little sway into her hips as Zena sings. "I'll have her stand up, get her moving her hips. It's good for her. I tell her, 'Don't worry. I've got your back.'"
  3. Whistle while you work, to introduce joyful sounds into the air and keep yourself connected to the one you're caring for. Ask for requests!
  4. Dress for the day. Wardrobes tend to get limited as one gets older, but that doesn't mean a splash of color is out of the question or a stylish coat or sweater can't be found. If appropriate, safe and desired, try a little lipstick or nail polish. "My clients love it," says Zena. "I say, 'You look gorgeous,' and that always brings a smile."

Do you have an aging parent or spouse who receives home care that goes above and beyond the call of duty? Have you seen a special talent brighten a senior's day? Share your story.

For more by Marki Flannery, click here.

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