Canadian-born nurse seeks to empower seniors

September 13, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

There still is the challenge of sticking to the doctor's advice - or the nurse's in this case - but for Charles Dunnigan, knowing what to do is not as much of a mystery.

A resident of the Alexander House in Hagerstown, Dunnigan, 70, has high blood pressure that he struggles to keep in check with diet and exercise. He said he has had to stay away from foods high in salt content, but has been able to keep with his program.

Also a volunteer at the Alexander House Senior Center, Dunnigan was among a dozen seniors who on Aug. 24 attended an informational session on blood pressure conducted by registered nurse Ita Kavanagh.


After emerging from his individual screening session with Kavanagh, Dunnigan said he was pleased to learn that he was doing the right things to control his blood pressure and that, during the individual screening session, he learned his blood pressure was better than it was the last time he had it checked.

"It was a beautiful program," Dunnigan said. "She does a very good thing, and she's built it up so people can understand what it's all about and that you're doing what you're supposed to do."

While it is up to the senior citizens to follow her advice, Kavanagh said she takes pride in knowing that at sessions such as the one at the Alexander House, she can help answer the score of questions seniors have about the complexities of growing older.

"They lack information, and I feel they could be better helped," Kavanagh said on Aug. 12, when she gave a presentation on another subject.

Seniors "don't always seek information. They just seem comfortable with me, and they enjoy talking with me," she said.

Kavanagh pointed out that she pronounces her first name "like Rita, but without the R."

Connecting with seniors

If the name seems familiar, it's because Kavanagh gets around. A contract worker for the Washington County Commission on Aging, Kavanagh speaks monthly at each of the county's seven senior centers on a variety of topics as part of the commission's Senior Medication Management program.

A registered nurse since 1971, the 56-year-old Newfoundland native practiced under Canada's socialized health-care system until her husband accepted a job locally and the two moved to Hagerstown about 18 years ago.

About five years ago, the Commission on Aging invited her to deliver a presentation on its medication management program, and soon after she began holding monthly sessions at the county's senior centers, she said.

Kavanagh also spends a portion of her time meeting individually with seniors, both at their homes and at the Commission on Aging's offices in Hagerstown, to help them figure out if they are taking the right medicines, in the right dosages and at the right times.

"A lot of them don't understand how to take their medications and a lot of them would be healthier (if they did)," she said. "Oftentimes they have multisymptom problems, and they'll go to different doctors for the different symptoms. Unless they're particularly asked (about specific medications they're taking), they don't think to tell."

Kavanagh said she urges seniors to tell their doctors what other medications they are taking, ask why they are taking the medications they are taking and carefully read the labels on whatever medications they are given.

Presenting the issues

As a presenter, Kavanagh said she tries not to sugarcoat her presentations or sway her audience toward a particular viewpoint, preferring instead to let the senior citizens interact with her and take the discussion where they want it to go. She said she likes to select current events as the starting point for her discussions, such as an earlier discussion about advance directives.

An advance directive, also known as a living will, is a document that spells out under what circumstances a patient wishes to be kept alive by artificial means such as a feeding tube or respirator. Under a health-care power of attorney, someone is chosen to make sure doctors honor those requests.

Speaking Aug. 12 before a group of senior citizens at the Alexander House Senior Center, Kavanagh carefully and methodically laid out the issue and explained the things seniors need to consider when selecting someone to have their health-care power of attorney.

"Why do you have to do all this?" she asked the seniors. "If you don't, when you go to the hospital ... whoever shows up in the emergency room, that's the person who gets to make the decision."

The discussion followed the March death of Terri Schiavo after doctors removed her feeding tubes. While her parents opposed the measure, Schiavo did not have an advance directive and the courts sided with Schiavo's husband and his claims she would not have wanted to be kept alive on life support.

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