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Long-term caregiver

Mon., Sept. 29, 2014

Paulette Miller, 70, smiles after receiving her certificate of completion from a nursing assistant course at North Idaho College’s Workforce Training Center in Post Falls on Sept. 18. (Kathy Plonka)
Paulette Miller, 70, smiles after receiving her certificate of completion from a nursing assistant course at North Idaho College’s Workforce Training Center in Post Falls on Sept. 18. (Kathy Plonka)

For Paulette Miller, age proves no barrier in pursuing goals as nursing assistant

Paulette Miller, of Kellogg, has cared for people all her life – three children, a sick husband and his dying friend. Now her dear friend has cancer and heart problems. So she cares for him, too.

But after completing a nursing assistant training program, Miller is getting paid for her caretaking.

At 70, Miller didn’t think she could stuff new information into her aging brain. But after her Sept. 18 graduation, Miller knows she can accomplish many things that didn’t seem possible just two months ago.

“I really thought I was too old to keep all these things in my head,” Miller said. “But it’s amazing when you do it. I’m just tickled.”

Miller is one of nearly 400 students this year who will complete the eight-week course at North Idaho College’s Workforce Training Center. In a few weeks, she will take her final skills test to become a registered nursing assistant in Idaho and part of the Idaho Nurse Aide Registry.

With a large number of retirees in North Idaho and Eastern Washington and a big medical presence with hospitals and care facilities, having a nursing assistance certification almost guarantees jobs, which typically pay between $9 to $17 an hour. Often facilities are in such need for nursing assistants they will reimburse the tuition of an employee who completes the certification process. There is a big shortage of workers on both sides of the state line; just look at any job posting site including the newspaper and Craigslist, with 16 new posts alone on by 5 p.m. on Sept. 23.

“Oh there’s such a strong need,” said Tammy Pilgrim, a registered nurse who taught Miller’s class at the Workforce Training Center. “They can get right to work because of our elderly population.”

Pilgrim added that there also is a shortage of instructors for nursing assistance programs.

Nursing assistants can work in nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities, adult family homes and hospice, helping people with everyday tasks such as bathing, toileting, eating and dressing.

Miller will continue taking care of her friend Bill Lane, 79, as she has done for a couple years. The only change is she will be paid by the state for her caregiving. In-home care is another popular choice for certified nursing assistants.

Miller said Lane, a retired miner, received radiation burns that caused his cancer and heart problems while working in New Mexico. Until three years ago, he owned the Crystal Gold Mine where he gave underground tours of one of the first hard rock mines in the Silver Valley.

“I was married to a miner,” said Miller who has lived in the Silver Valley for 45 years. “I swore I’d never get mixed up with another miner.”

But two years ago she met Lane in a very modern way: on the Internet, when he advertised for a travel companion after his wife died. He only lived five miles down the road. Today the two travel and enjoy each other’s company. Miller said Lane is still healthy enough to do most things but he encouraged and paid for Miller to take the course just as extra insurance for when his health declines further.

“It’s something we need to face,” Miller said. “Something could happen to him out there and now I know more what to do.”

Miller was by decades the oldest student in the class, but she said life experience and maturity helped her persevere. Pilgrim said the nursing assistants classes usually have a mix of young students fresh from high school and middle age. There is often a student in their late 50s or mid 60s. She said 70 is unusual.

“They all made fun of me,” Miller said with a laugh. “That’s OK. I showed them up. It was a good class.”

Pilgrim described Miller as a hard-working woman who brought joy and experience to the class.

“She was a determined student,” Miller said, adding that she easily kept up and got great grades. “She had a mission.”

The 16 students learned everything from proper hand-washing and bed changing to how to dress a patient, wash their hair in bed, and care for and cleanse catheters. They also learned various range of motion exercises. They did seven clinicals in medical settings such as Kootenai Health and Ivy Court, a Coeur d’Alene nursing home.

“The first day a guy passed away,” Miller said. “So we had to do post mortem. You do it, and then you think about it. I didn’t expect that.”

After the daily commute over the mountains to Post Falls and hours of classes and homework, Miller and Lane are vacationing in Hawaii. But as the life of a caregiver, it’s a working vacation for Lane. She was looking forward to the break before she takes her final exam.

She’s confident in her abilities and proud of her achievement. She would do it again.

Her son is also proud. At 48, he often tells his mother he wants to return to school but feels too old.

“I tell him ‘Your mother is 70 and she did it. There’s no reason you can’t do it too.’ ”


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