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Ross nun who answered call to tend elderly strives to reinvigorate others

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 9:31 p.m.
Sister Norma Rodriguez outside Immaculate Conception Church in Bloomfield Sunday, September 23, 2012. She will be giving a series of talks to caregivers in the region over the next few weeks to volunteers in an effort to recharge them mentally, physically and spiritually. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)

Before she learned to tie her shoes, Sister Norma Rodriguez knew she wanted to spend her life caring for the elderly.

Raised without grandparents, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born nun of Puerto Rican parents always sought company from older generations.

“They crack me up,” said Rodriguez, 49, of Bloomfield, who offers social support to senior citizens struggling mainly with depression.

That role is among her duties with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, a convent in Ross belonging to the Diocese of Pittsburgh that she entered in the early 1990s.

“The wisdom, the laugh, the stories they share — it's so awesome.”

But while offering health and social services is viewed by Rodriguez more as a ministry than a job, she acknowledged the exhaustion felt by many who tend to the ill, whether as an occupation or voluntary responsibility.

And that is why she is preparing to lead a series of talks in October and November to bring into focus for caregivers the importance of setting aside time to regain vigor.

“You need to take care of yourself,” said Rodriguez, who worked for 13 years as a nurse's aide at Marion Manor, Greentree, a care home for senior citizens, where her parents resided before they died. She would journal and read literature when she was not working. Such endeavors are the sorts of things caregivers need to make time for, she said.

“You need to mark on your calendars, ‘When have you done something for yourself?' ”

A calendar, she noted, helps her schedule times to read, write and pray when not caring for others.

Caregivers must recover energy in an effort to “make you fall back in love with what you're doing.”

Her talks, offered as a four-part series called the “Revitalization Seminars for Caregivers and Volunteers,” could strengthen the resolve of caregivers struggling to balance personal and work-related responsibilities, said Bill Backa, an outreach coordinator for Gateway Hospice in McCandless. The center offers in-home health services in several counties across the Pittsburgh region.

Backa organized the seminars — each of which are scheduled a different franchise of Panera Bread — in response to a dozen phone calls and emails he said he has received in the past couple of years from caregivers who “really need a little help — mentally, physically and spiritually — to sustain themselves.” He sought the expertise of Rodriguez, who worked as a volunteer at the hospice center.

Many caregivers, he noted, are part of the so-called “sandwich generation,” composed of middle-aged parents scrambling to raise teenage children and care for their parents while working full time.

The emotional, mental and physical strain underlying such a lifestyle often goes “unspoken,” Backa said. But “If they don't take care of themselves, they're not going to be in any kind of condition to take care of anyone else.”

Virginia Mayo, who plans to attend one of the four talks, cares for her 88-year-old mother between volunteering as a chaplain at the hospice center and writing occasional sermons for the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

“I can burn out, or feel like I can't do this anymore unless I get some nourishment,” said Mayo, 66, of Lawrenceville.

She said the seminar could bring clarity to a role sometimes obscured by doubt and visceral emotions.

“Am I doing the right thing? Who's going to support me?” she said, referring to what she said are common concerns among caregivers.

Pat Donnelli, 88, views the seminar as a chance to let other caregivers know “they're not alone in this struggle.

“I'm hoping this sister will give me some more food for thought and something I can pass on to others,” said Donnelli, who now serves as a chaplain to nursing home patients afflicted with Alzheimer's after working for 35 years as a registered nurse at St. Clair Hospital.

Jacob Flannick is a freelance writer.

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