Nov 01, 2013
By Kate Jaimet

Elder care was in the cards

Teckles Photography Inc.Sherry Gionet takes on her dad and a patient in friendly competition.

Games of cribbage sparked Sherry Gionet’s interest in gerontology

The two elderly gentleman, known as Frosty and Snowy, loved to laugh, Sherry Gionet recalls. She was only 12 but understood that they both lived alone and had problems with alcohol. Neither seemed to have any family around — at least, none that they were on speaking terms with. But because her father, John Wilkins, invited them to his home in the rural outskirts of Saint John, N.B., to play crib and talk about old times, they had a family once again.

“Dad would bring them home for dinner, make sure they had groceries and drive them to appointments, and we’d have them over for Christmas,” Gionet says. “We tend to pick up the stragglers and embrace them into our family. And that’s where they stay.”

Gionet has cared for elderly people all her working life. After graduating from high school, she landed a job with the Red Cross at $3.10 an hour, providing personal care to seniors and leading exercise programs in their homes. “I looked on many of them as honorary grandparents, and they loved to spoil me.” A VON nurse, whose rounds overlapped with Gionet’s visits, noticed her affinity for seniors and encouraged her to think about nursing as a potential career.

She was on her way. She graduated from the Saint John school of nursing in 1984, and later obtained a certificate in gerontology nursing from the University College of the Cariboo in B.C. and earned her CNA certification credential in her specialty.

Today, Gionet is the charge nurse of the 21-bed geriatric evaluation and management unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Saint John. In June of this year, she was appointed to the National Seniors Council, a committee that consults with seniors, organizations and experts and advises the federal government on issues related to quality of life and well-being of Canada’s seniors. The need for more community services, particularly to address the problem of isolation, is a top-of-mind issue she intends to bring forward at council meetings.

“We have too many people sitting in hospital who don’t have anywhere to go,” Gionet says. “Families burn out trying to care for them, and there aren’t enough nursing home beds. The numbers that we have coming to us are only going to increase, and we’re not ready.”

Gionet had been a staff nurse on the GEM unit for a decade, but she injured her back in 2005, which led to surgery and an end to any “lifting and lugging.” As the charge nurse, she leads a staff of 17 RNs and licensed practical nurses. She is the unit’s administrator, organizes the patient care teams of nurses, doctors, social workers, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, and conducts assessments of patients. Another important aspect of her practice is teaching staff and community groups in her role as a master facilitator for the Canadian Falls Prevention Curriculum.

She devotes many hours to counselling family members who are caring for spouses and parents whose physical and mental health is failing. “I educate them about dementia, help them access resources and support them as they cope with the emotional issues that arise when old family conflicts resurface or they feel guilty about taking over decision-making power.”

Geriatric medicine fascinates her. “On the clinical side of things, it’s like putting a puzzle together, because the patients have so many complex issues going on in their body with multiple systems breaking down,” Gionet says. “When I first started working in geriatrics, it wasn’t seen as a glamorous field. We weren’t seen as the ‘smart’ nurses. And now, this is kind of the place to be because there’s a lot of research being done.”

Gionet has presented posters at events across Canada and in the U.S. and was principal investigator on a study that looked at goal attainment scaling to measure progress of patients in achieving rehabilitation goals.

Her volunteer work includes assisting the provincial branch of the Alzheimer Society with the launch of a monthly Alzheimer Café in her city, for patients and families to socialize over lunch, enjoy live entertainment and receive support from professionals in the community. She is proud of having been a CNA Certification Program mentor, seeing it as an opportunity to give back to her profession and share her knowledge with colleagues. Her current project is a video diary she’s compiling through interviews with her aunt, who has lived with dementia for close to three years. The goal is to produce a documentary on dementia that can be used to educate staff in long-term care.

Gionet’s septuagenarian parents live with her and her spouse. John still brings home buddies to play cards, she says, though at 77, “he’s now the oldest guy in the crowd.” Gionet herself plays a wicked hand of crib to this day; she gives full credit for her prowess to Frosty and Snowy.

10 questions with Sherry Gionet

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I would like to improve how I handle conflict

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Being married for 24 years, raising a self-confident daughter and receiving the Nurses Association of New Brunswick’s Excellence in Clinical Practice Award

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I cry easily

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Sew more quilts

Where did you go on your last vacation?
A Caribbean cruise

What was the last good book you read?
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

What is the best thing about your current job?
The staff, patients and families I work with

What do you like least about being a nurse?
Dealing with political systems that restrict quality of life for seniors

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
Here in New Brunswick, we need more long-term care beds in nursing homes and more recreation and physio services for those in hospital who are waiting for one

Kate Jaimet is a freelance writer in Ottawa, Ont.
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