Caring for the elderly


It was over a year ago when we first had the chance to learn about the Payne-Phalen Living at Home/Block Nurse Program and the wonderful work this small group of people is doing for our elder in East St. Paul. Unfortunately, a series of bizarre events –including a car accident- distracted our attention from the program and forced us to postpone this article several times. But everything comes in due time and thanks to those events we had the chance to learn more about not only the services at Payne-Phalen, but about the wonderful people that work there and the hundreds of stories that we all could learn if we spend only one day among its elders.

Those who expect to find in Payne-Phalen something more classic in the approach to elderly care may find themselves a little surprised after finding out that nothing they ever heard about those centers is true in this wonderful place.

Since the moment that a person walks into the building –Payne-Phalen is housed by First Covenant Church in East St. Paul- he or she will find himself or herself mingling into a group of volunteers completely devoted to the care they provide. The smiles in their faces and the camaraderie between them and the elders makes you wonder if by any chance you are interrupting a family reunion instead of visiting a center for the elder.

Just a few minutes talking to Barabara La Valleur, Executive Director of the center- is enough to turn the most skeptic person into a believer. La Valleur, a retired photo journalist, talks about the work her staff does with so much pride that you feel as if you are talking to a parent telling you about her children’s accomplishments. And she has plenty of accomplishments and volunteers to feel proud of; Ana Diaz and Artemio Alvarado are two of them. Alvarado, a Social worker that works as Health Outreach Advocate has become one of the most important staff members at Payne-Phalen. He has devoted his life to work in favor of the more than 50 Latino elders that the center serves. He is more than an Outreach Advocate and for some of the elders he is an angel. “He is everything for me.” Said Fermina, one of the Latino elders at the center. “I am losing my memory and for me Artemio is my only hope. He reminds me of my appointments at the doctor, with the Social Worker and so many things that I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

Diaz, on the other hand, is a dynamic doctor from Venezuela enrolled in a Masters Degree in the Twin Cities. She devotes more than 20 hours a week as a volunteer at Payne-Phalen, assisting the elder in their basic needs and jumping into the scene as an emergency nurse –she is not licensed yet to practice medicine in the US- whenever she is needed. It was Alvarado who brought her to the center and helped her get involved with the Latino elders in the program.

For both of them, working at Payne-Phalen is more than just volunteering at the center. They usually devote 20, 30, 40 or even 60 hours a week (if necessary) assisting the Latinos in the program. A couple of years ago they began bringing food to the Latino elders in the program, through Second Harvest (an organization devoted to provide food for low income families). Once a month they meet at Second Harvest’s warehouse and fill their cars with food for tens of Latino elders enrolled in the program and they don’t rest until the last one of them has received the food. “We’d like to have more people involved in this effort.” They say. “We need help and it will be wonderful to have someone who can help us bring the food to our elders. If only some people can do that and spend a few minutes talking to them, you have no idea of how much help it would be. Some of these elder people spend the day all by themselves and need someone to talk to and share how they feel even for just a few minutes…” they confessed.

Hector’s Story

Hector is one of the Latino elders enrolled in the program. He considers the people at Payne-Phalen his family and is grateful of everything the program has done for him. Alvarado found him over two years ago, living under a bridge and gravely ill –he suffers from a heart condition that requires constant care and monitoring-.

Alvarado found him and brought him to the program. He helped him find a home and medical attention. “I can’t complain…” he said. “Even though I was living on the streets, I always found food at the shelters and sometimes even a bed to sleep. But as soon as the winter comes, things become really tough out there.” He continued. Hector is part of the group of Latino elders at Payne-Phalen and he is recovering from his condition and has become one of the most active members of this small group.

From Medical Attention to Arts and Citizenship

La Valleur and her team have been able to devote a big amount of resources to Latino elders –most of it through volunteer time- and thanks to that effort, 19 of them have applied and obtained their citizenship. Fermina -67, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras- and Gloria –from Puebla, Mexico- are two of them. For them Tuesdays are very special days. Tuesdays are the days they meet at Payne-Phalen and share with the rest of the Latino elders, talk about their lives, families, do art projects and receive other services. Once again, Artemio Alvarado and Ana Diaz are important elements in the success of these days. But for Alvarado, a very humble man, this is nothing more than just his share of work for the community.

The Payne-Phalen Living at Home/Block Nurse Program

Payne-Phalen is one of nearly 41 similar programs in Minnesota and North Dakota. They are non profits devoted to serve elder populations in specific areas and help them continue with their lives without the need to move into a nursing home, by providing them with services and support. Payne-Pahlen opened its doors in 1999 and is housed at First Covenant Church in East St. Paul at 1280 Arcade St., St. Paul, in the heart of the 5th District. Through its work it has saved millions of dollars from tax money -$1.9 million in 2006, by preventing the senior citizen they assist from moving to state institutions- and has helped tens of senior citizens continue with their normal lives and receive care and support when they need it. Its mission could sound simple for someone looking at it from the outside, “To build a circle of care around the diverse elders on St. Paul’s East Side keeping them healthy and safe in their homes.” But for those involved in the care is way more than that, is away of caring for people they consider their own family.