If you’re female, you’ll probably be a caregiver at some time in your life. Certainly for your children, if you have them. Probably for your parents. Possibly for your spouse. And maybe for your grandchildren.

If you’re female, you’ll probably be a caregiver at some time in your life.

Certainly for your children, if you have them. Probably for your parents. Possibly for your spouse. And maybe for your grandchildren.

In Illinois, the average caregiver is a woman over 50, according to the Illinois Department on Aging. She’s married, works full time and also cares for at least one child.

Professional caregivers, including nurses and certified nursing assistants, are mostly women. Daughters are much more likely to care for aging parents than are sons.

Here we profile five Rockford women who represent different facets of caregiving for the elderly. Some do it for a living. Most see it as a calling.

But whether they care for thousands of caregivers or hundreds of residents or their own mother, they share a common thread. Most have known some personal sorrow. Many speak of a strong spiritual foundation.

All share their story with the hope of helping other women carry the burden of caring.

Personal, professional lives collide
No one wants to go live in a nursing home. It’s considered the last stop.

But as campus administrator for Wesley Willows, Debra Adkins has a different view.

“This is a place you go to live,” she says. “We want the best possible environment for people who’ve chosen to live their lives with us.”

To be fair, the facility is not just a nursing home. Located on 234 acres on North Rockton Avenue, it includes 97 duplexes, 167 apartments and a 91-bed skilled nursing facility, with more buildings in the works. Options range from independent living to personal care to skilled nursing care, including rehabilitation and a special unit for Alzheimer’s residents.

Wesley Willows is a not-for-profit facility founded 42 years ago by Roy and Minnie Johns. It started as a retirement home for Methodist widows, Adkins says. Today, residents buy into the community for the entire spectrum of care.

“We make a commitment to anyone who moves here: We’ll care for them for the rest of their lives,” she says. “That’s a remarkable thing.”

Adkins, 54, has worked in long-term care for the past 10 years, the past five at Wesley Willows.

As campus administrator, she oversees 285 staff members and is responsible for programs and services, facilities and grounds, nursing, activities, and food service for about 538 residents.

One of them is her mother. Adkins lived with her mom for about 10 years until their roles began to change.

“Much of our relationship was about taking care of her house and her needs,” Adkins says.

“Now we can be mother and daughter again.”

But she experienced the same emotions as families who have relatives at Wesley Willows.

She wanted to find the best fit for her mom. She advises those shopping for a long-term care facility to check Medicare.gov, which provides details on everything from safety violations to average nurse-patient hours a day.

“Most importantly, visit,” she says. “Do the residents seem happy? Are they well cared-for? How does the staff interact with residents?”

Cost is also a factor. Some facilities, including Wesley Willows, have a set number of beds for residents on Medicaid. Potential residents must complete an application process that considers age and financial assets.

“Mom got no preferential treatment,” she says. “She had a modest life and modest resources. It is surprisingly affordable.”

The facility boasts state-of-the-art fitness equipment, exercise classes, a game room and seven dining rooms with linen tablecloths and professionally trained cooks. But more importantly, it offers a sense of community, she says.

“We have hundreds of volunteers and a great auxiliary,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody and looks out for everybody. It’s a source of comfort. If I get to the place where I need help, I have that community that’s going to help me.”

A continuing care facility can be a good option when couples’ needs differ, Adkins says. If one spouse has a stroke or develops Alzheimer’s disease, it’s up to the other to find support and community resources. In some cases, the caregiver develops health issues related to the stress or is faced with living alone.

“With a continuing care retirement community, we share that 24/7 job,” she says. “Couples get the opportunity to stay together longer.”

She knows the guilt associated with placing a loved one in a long-term care facility.

“Wesley Willows is not a facility, but home,” she says. “Not ‘like’ home, but home.”

“Do you want to move in?” she adds. “I do.”

Debra Adkins
Age: 54
Title: Campus administrator
Born: In Dixon, but raised near Franklin Grove
Resides: In Loves Park
Family: Son, who is a restaurant manager; daughter, who is a third-year medical student; one grandson
Hobbies: Spending time with family and friends; listening to music; reading; watching the Cubs and the RiverHawks

Putting the pieces together
The second day on vacation in Arizona, one woman had to find a flight home because her 93-year-old mother had a heart attack.

Another woman runs errands for her 87-year-old mother while her husband does the same for his 98-year-old dad.

Still another struggles to care for her mother who doesn’t understand why she can’t drive. She makes the group laugh when she describes her mom’s stubbornness.

“I feel sorry for my grandparents,” she says. “They had to put up with my parents.”

Teresa Colvin listens to their comments, asks questions, and sometimes offers recommendations. Mostly, she praises their efforts and affirms what they’re doing.

Colvin is the caregiver specialist for the Northwestern Illinois Area Agency on Aging (NIAAA).

Moderating the once-a-month caregiver support group is just one of her duties. NIAAA offers support to the estimated 3,200 caregivers — and to other agencies providing caregiver assistance — in a nine-county region.

“Sometimes, it’s overwhelming,” Colvin says. “I know I can’t fix all their problems. The biggest challenge is when there’s no resource for a need.”

But if there is a resource, Colvin knows about it. She also chairs Admissions Discharge Planners Marketing Ideas Together (ADMIT), a more-than 60-member group that meets once a month. ADMIT comprises health-care professionals and those representing “anything to do with seniors or caregivers,” she says. Their goal is to support and network with each other, to cooperate and not compete.

She also draws on her years of experience, starting in 1982 as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home. She moved up to activity director, then recreational coordinator before moving to social services, including a time working for Medicare. She completed her bachelor’s degree in health-care administration in 2001.

She’s been at her current post for the past six years, helping caregivers find the help they need.

“From 70 (percent) to 80 percent are women,” she says, “wives, daughters, daughters-in-law.”

A small percent are neighbors, friends or other relatives. She also works with grandparents raising grandchildren.

Their questions and concerns fill the stack of pink phone messages that are part of her day’s work. Some are looking for affordable in-home care. Others need transportation. Others need advice on when to look for a long-term care facility.

“Sometimes, they would like for me to make a decision for them,” she says. Instead, she gives them information to help them decide.

She can advise them on how to get a wheelchair, power of attorney for health care, or Meals on Wheels. She can tell them about Circuit Breaker, the state program that helps pay for medication, and reverse mortgages, which allow seniors to borrow off the equity in their homes. She can help them apply for federally funded respite care, a one-time grant that pays for care so the caregiver can take a break.

“A lot of caregivers have chronic illnesses themselves,” Colvin says. “Many suffer some financial loss. They quit jobs or go part time to take care of their spouse.”

Support group meetings can help caregivers share their troubles. For those who can’t leave their loved ones to attend a meeting, Colvin can recommend online support groups and chat rooms. And she can lend a sympathetic ear.

“I feel like I help people — and they’re appreciative,” she says. “Helping them helps me.”

Teresa Colvin
Age: 50
Title: Caregiver specialist
Born: In Rockford
Resides: In Rockford
Family: Husband; parents; siblings; daughter who is a nurse; stepdaughter who is a certified nursing assistant; stepson studying to be a computer programmer; 4-year-old granddaughter.
Hobbies: Spending time with granddaughter; cooking; solving word puzzles and Sudoku; reading her women’s Bible.

Hands-on caring a 'privilege'
When it comes to caregiving, you can’t get closer to the front lines than Beverly Bosselman.

She provides hands-on care for the sickest patients as a certified nursing assistant. She’s worked for the Visiting Nurses Association for 15 years, most recently as one of two on-call CNAs for VNA Hospice.

Her duties include bathing, shaving, shampooing, massaging, feeding and toileting patients.

She also changes bedding, repositions patients in bed and helps with simple range-of-motion exercises. She helps monitor the patient’s skin condition and notifies the nurse if there are changes, if additional dressing changes are needed, or supplies are running low.

“You also assess what the patient’s mood is,” she says. “It’s more of the social aspect, the spiritual aspect.”

She became interested in professional caregiving more than 15 years ago, when she was a single mother, working as a hairdresser. A favorite aunt was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 46. Bosselman and her mother cared for her with eventual help of hospice.

“They were just fantastic,” she remembers.

Six months after her aunt died, her best friend’s grandmother had a stroke. Bosselman moved in to help with her care. That’s when she decided to train as a CNA at Rock Valley College.

She especially wanted to work with end-of-life patients.

“This is very difficult,” she says, “but there’s something I get out of this.” 

Her patients have ranged from 2 weeks to 100 years old. Some are patients in nursing homes, others are at home. They come from all walks of life and backgrounds, some far different from the “very blessed beginning” Bosselman says she had.

“You see situations, behaviors and personalities you don’t agree with, but you have to be really professional,” Bosselman says. “When you grab your bag and start up the sidewalk, you have to be in the moment.”

Some have been more challenging than others, like the baby who reminded her of her own son. When her mother died three years ago, Bosselman found she had trouble letting others help in her care. The year after her mother’s death was also difficult, having to relive the grief with her patients’ families.

“You try to relate to people that you know what they’re going though,” she says. “If you start to cry, at least they know you’re human.”

But the biggest challenge, she says, is caring for people and then having to let them go.

“When you see all the goodness, you wish you’d met them healthier and known them longer,” she says. “I feel the loss when they’re gone.”

VNA holds two memorials a year, when families and the hospice team can reunite. It’s a chance to reconnect with families, to laugh and to cry. Everyone on the team is extremely spiritual, she says.

“I’m not a go-to-church person, but I do a lot of talking to God in the car,” she says. “I’m always asking for strength and comfort and guidance.”

She says her ultimate goal is to someday work for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. But for now, family — and hospice — keeps her here.

“I never get up and feel I don’t want to go to work today,” she says. “I’m very privileged to be doing this.”

Beverly Bosselman
Age: 49
Title: Certified hospice palliative care nursing assistant
Born: In Rockford
Resides: In Loves Park   
Family: One son; father; and sister
Hobbies: Yard work; crafting; floral arranging

Daughter's life takes new direction
Gloriann Dawson could write a book about caregiving.

In fact, she did.

“One Daughter’s Story” recounts the 10 years she helped her mother battle breast cancer, from the first diagnosis to her mother’s death in 1999. Before the illness, Dawson’s only experience with caregiving had been as a candy striper in high school. She was single, living with her parents, and working full time at a local bank.

“I had a very good life,” Dawson recalls. “I was a spoiled brat in my 40s. I came and went as I pleased. All that came to a screeching halt.”

One Thursday morning, her mother happened to feel a lump in her breast. Biopsy confirmed a stage IV cancer. Four days later, she had a mastectomy.

Dawson found herself taking care of her mother and father, who was 15 years older than his wife and suffered from congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Her only sibling, her brother, Larry, was busy with his career and helping to raise his stepson.

“I realized that if it was going to get done, I would have to do it,” she says. “Mom turned over the house, Dad and everything to me.”

She remembers racing home on her lunch hour to empty her mother’s surgical drain. The bank allowed her to combine her breaks and lunch hour to take her mother to doctor appointments. Besides the cooking, cleaning, shopping and other chores, she found herself struggling to keep her mother in good spirits.

“We watched ‘I Love Lucy’ and I’d get her laughing,” she says. “I tucked her in every night. I never wanted her to go to bed unhappy.”

Almost five years from the initial diagnosis, her mother started having lower back pain. Tests revealed an inoperable tumor between her pelvis and sciatic nerve. While she had always said she wouldn’t do chemotherapy, this time she said, “When do we start?”

Dawson readied for the battle ahead. She urged her mother to get a short haircut and a wig for when the chemo claimed her hair. She learned to give her the anti-nausea medication before the chemo sessions.

“I became an advocate for her dignity,” Dawson says. “She wore matching scarves and I put makeup on her. I wanted her to feel as much a woman as she could.”

Dawson also worked to keep her from becoming emaciated. She pushed pudding, pasta and mashed potatoes, along with frequent trips to Dairy Queen. Through the whole ordeal, her mother lost just 5 pounds. Dawson, however, says she gained 30.

At her mother’s surprise 70th birthday party, they both got an unexpected present. A phone call about the latest recheck confirmed her mother was cancer-free. But the good news didn’t last.

When the cancer returned, it had spread to her ribs, spine and skull.

“I kept my mother so busy,” she recalls, “dinners, day trips, whatever I had to do as it got down to the last year and a half.”

The last two weeks were spent at a local nursing home, with the help of hospice. Dawson and her dog Chloe stayed with her from morning to night, breaking long enough to bring meals to her dad. On the last night, Dawson spent the evening singing and talking to her.

“I told her, ‘It’s OK to go,’ ” she remembers. “Don’t worry about me and Dad. We’re going to be just fine.”

After her mother died, she continued caring for her father. His health worsened to where he could no longer bathe, shave or control his bodily functions. She came home one day to find him smoking despite being on supplemental oxygen. He died in early 2002.

“All of a sudden, there was this void,” she says. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.”

But two windows opened after those deaths, she says. Using the journal she kept for 10 years, she wrote the book about her experience with her mother. And she became a direct care volunteer for Northern Illinois Hospice.

“I spend time with patients so families can go out,” she explains. Her first patient was a woman dying of breast cancer.

With the consent of the patient and family, she often brings Chloe, who helps break the ice.

“I know my mother would be proud,” she says simply. “Her death has meant something.”

Gloria Dawson
Age: “58 and going forth!”
Title: Author; office manager for Econo Trading Co.
Born: In Peoria but raised in Rockford
Resides: In Rockton
Family: Older brother Larry; sister-in-law Janet; nephews Rob and Devin; and two Yorkies, Chloe and Bella
Hobbies: Knitting; golfing; watching NASCAR; and training her dogs

Note: Get “One Daughter’s Story” at Annie’s Gifts & Home; Womanspace; Canterbury Books and Tours; Amazon.com; and Borders.com. A portion of the proceeds benefits the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research and the Northern Illinois Hospice and Grief Center.

She's like family, and she's for hire
Her business card reads “geriatric consultant/care manager,” but Shirley G. Sievers calls herself a professional daughter.

For the past nine years, she’s helped elderly clients and their families navigate the challenges that come with growing old. Her clients have included men, women and married couples whose relatives have lived as far away as Alaska. Sievers steps in as a surrogate.

“Everybody needs a cheerleader,” she says, “someone to look out for them, an advocate.”

During the 14 years she worked in long-term care, she watched families struggle to care for aging loved ones. She met parents who demanded independence but clearly needed help.

She saw adults torn between raising children and caring for parents. She watched siblings argue over what was best for mom or dad.

“I knew the need was great,” she says of her work. “People were doing it all over the country — but not here.”

After a year of research and guidance from an attorney, Sievers launched her personalized geriatric service. Under a contract, and for a specified fee, she fills in for family.

Sievers has a clear list of what she can and cannot do. She’s not a nurse so she doesn’t administer medicine — but she will contact the doctor’s office to check on the patient’s dosage. She doesn’t drive patients to the doctor, but she’ll set up transportation and meet them there. She phones and visits them at home, checking their safety and well-being. She’s removed throw rugs, arranged for call lights, and suggested and arranged for medical equipment.

For patients in nursing homes, she attends care plan meetings and makes unannounced visits, watching for signs of abuse or neglect as any family member would.

She often gets very close to her clients. She recalls one woman who didn’t answer the phone one day. Sievers alerted the out-of-town family and called an ambulance, meeting it at the house. They found the patient had fallen and was lying on the floor. Sievers met her at the emergency room and stayed with her there, arguing with a doctor to keep her overnight. When the time came, Sievers suggested a long-term care facility and later convinced the family to call hospice.

Sievers has a range of resources and contacts, but some of her expertise comes from life experience. Her daughter died suddenly in her sleep 21 years ago, at age 32. A few years later, Sievers’ husband died.

“I’ve had some personal tragedies,” she says simply.

Sievers has helped plan funerals for clients. She’s identified them in the mortuary. She’s also been named as guardian, making sure a client’s personal needs are met.

“I had one woman who called me her ‘rich friend from Rockford,’ because I bought her clothes,” Sievers recalls. “Little did she know she was paying for it.”

Being a professional daughter has its challenges. She’s been fired. She’s had families refuse to pay her. She’s refereed family fights. She’s had to report cases of suspected abuse.

“I’ve met some really good people and I’ve met some awful people,” she says. “Some don’t care how they treat their parents.”

But in nine years, she’s never had to advertise her services. All of her clients have come by word of mouth or through referrals from banks’ trust departments, attorneys and social workers.

Sievers is on call for emergencies around the clock. When she’s not taking care of a patient’s needs, she’s phoning or e-mailing family members with updates. She has to notify families and hire an independent contractor when she takes a break. In her spare time, she’s on the advisory boards for Northern Illinois Hospice and Grief Center, Cor Mariae Center and Visiting Nurses Association Money Management. She’s a member of Admissions Discharge Planners Marketing Ideas Together, which she helped found.

At the end of the day?

“I’m exhausted,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a work in progress.”

Shirley G. Sievers
Age: “39 and holding”
Title: Geriatric consultant/care manager
Born: In Chicago
Resides: In Rockford
Family: One son, two grandsons, two granddaughters, one great-granddaughter
Hobbies: Scotch on the rocks