By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
At 107 years old, Mary lives alone in her family home and walks out to the mailbox every day. She doesn’t drive anymore and someone comes in to clean, but she still pays her own bills. Mary’s independence is possible thanks to the Society’s visiting nurse, Peggy Walker, who checks in on Mary once a week, just as she does for dozens of other Navy and Marine Corps retirees or their spouses. “It’s so rewarding to be able to help people live safely at home, if that’s what they want,” Walker said. “Mary inspires me.”
No stranger to the services of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, at 27 Mary had a high-risk pregnancy and had to deliver at a civilian hospital instead of the Navy hospital. Her baby girl weighed only three pounds. “She didn’t have the money for a civilian hospital,” Walker explained. “She asked her husband, ‘how are we going to pay for this?’ and he said, ‘don’t worry about it. I went to Navy Relief and they’re going to pay for it.’” Mary’s daughter is now 80 and lives across the street from Mary.
Walker didn’t always work with seniors. She decided as a sixth-grader that she was going to be a nurse, and after earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Oregon, she worked in intensive care. “In the ICU it’s more one-on-one,” Walker said. “You have one or two patients and you get to know the whole picture—all the diagnoses, the labs, the vital signs. It was quick and challenging. You seldom got bored working in the ICU.” She then spent three years in Hawaii working in coronary care at a private hospital. “People were very grateful that we were taking care of them. They would bring us food, invite us to stay for weekends at their hotels. One man gave us his beach house for the day. That wouldn’t happen today,” Walker laughed.
In Hawaii, Walker met and married a Sailor and moved to California. When the couple had children (who are now 33, 31, and 29), Walker transitioned to home health nursing to have more flexibility. Then the family moved to Bremerton, Washington. “I knew the nurse who used to work for NMCRS Bremerton, Peggy Dow, when I was working in home health. She said she wanted me to take her job when she retired so her clients wouldn’t have to learn another name! When she did retire, I was ready to move into her job, and I’ve been here 16 years,” Walker said.
Walker loves her job and values her clients. “Navy retirees are some of the nicest people in the world—polite, courteous, and kind,” she said. “I think nurses always see the best of people. They’re sick and vulnerable and they appreciate what you’re doing.” Walker likes the autonomy of her job and the fact that she can offer a range of NMCRS resources to her clients. “When people have financial issues, you can say, why don’t you come in to the Society office and they can help?”
Primarily Walker helps her clients understand and manage their medical conditions. “I see a lot of patients who have been recently diagnosed and don’t understand their diseases,” she explained. “I teach them about their disease—what it involves, the signs and symptoms to be aware of—and talk about diet, mobility, home safety, medications, and community resources such as special access bus service and Meals on Wheels. A lot of seniors don’t know what’s available.”
Even something as simple as organizing medications can be a significant help to an elderly client, Walker said. “I get their medications from the Navy hospitals and deliver them. I set up daily and weekly medication dosage boxes so they can properly manage their medications. This helps them stay at home longer.”
Just like mother-baby nurses, Walker weighs her clients to make sure they’re getting enough nutrition and not losing weight. “I encourage them to walk and eat healthy foods. I might suggest supplements.”
While she works hard to enable her clients to age at home, sometimes it’s not possible. “The most challenging part of my work is when a client really shouldn’t be home anymore but they want to be. I have to help them understand that what they want isn’t necessarily the best thing for them. I try to interact with their family as much as I can. I ask for emergency contacts and if I can let their family members know I’m here.
If I see things that concern me, I ask the client if I can let their family know. If needed, I will start telling them that the doctor is worried about them and I want them and their family to start looking at assisted living facilities now, so if there’s a crisis, they’re not rushed into somewhere they don’t want to be.”
“I’m very appreciative that I work for NMCRS. I’m always learning from my patients. One lady had been in Midway during World War II and I had a patient who was in Pearl Harbor during the attack. Now, I only have one or two World War II veterans left. A couple years ago I had about 20. I love listening to their stories—it’s like living history.”
“My patients all think of me as a granddaughter or daughter,” Walker said. “They’re always trying to give me life lessons. I had a patient who always said to me, ‘you need to go to funerals. That’s how you let the family know how important that person was. You have a good story to tell the family.’”