Though he is often the stoic politician of southern Minnesota, State Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, felt the weight of the stories he was listening to as caregivers at an Owatonna memory care assisted living facility recounted what their last year has been like.

Petersburg, whose career was in church administration, knows all too well the gravity of a caregiver’s job. Having lost his first wife to cancer and now stands alongside his current wife as she undergoes chemotherapy for late-stage cancer, Petersburg knows the true nature of the hearts of those who serve as caregivers.

“Caregivers are the lifeblood of these organizations,” Petersburg said to a small group of staff at Birchwood Cottages in Owatonna Tuesday. “They make a difference in these people’s lives, but it’s more than that – it is their way of life.”

On Tuesday, the Birchwood administration team invited Petersburg to hear about the difficulties caregivers have experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The conversation comes as the state continues to hammer out the details in the ‘hero pay’ package that was included in the final budget passed by the legislature last week. Minnesota lawmakers included a $250 million fund to pay bonuses to workers who put their own lives on the line to help others through the pandemic, although exactly who meets that definition of caregiver and how the money will be allocated won’t be sorted out for months.

Margaret Ann Miller wants to make sure that caregivers like the ones at Birchwood are both remembered and prioritized up in St. Paul. A few months prior to the onset of the pandemic in Minnesota, Miller moved her husband Bob into Birchwood after caring for him for a number of years following his dementia diagnosis. As a former registered nurse, Miller had a high expectation of the type of care she wanted her loved one to receive in an assisted living facility.

“He was so happy here and I was so happy he was here,” Miller said, adding that she was a daily visitor and would often bring her husband home for a family meal. “When COVID-19 hit in March his health started declining and then one day I came to visit and my key card didn’t work … then we were like so many others who could only visit through a window.”

For nearly three months, Miller resorted to visiting her husband through a window, which she said worked out just fine for them. That did little to help ease her worry about the other residents, though, and Miller said her heart was soon aching for the staff.

“This was extremely tough on the staff – it’s already hard enough to have to deal with residents who need memory care and then also have other various physical issues, but to explain to them why everyone is wearing masks and why they’re no longer seeing their loved ones … I don’t think I could have done it,” Miller said, noting that her husband died in May 2020 and that his caregivers did everything they could to also care for her during that period. “As far as I’m concerned with the term ‘hero,’ that’s what they are.”

Beyond caring for people during an incredibly trying time, caregivers over the last 18 months also dealt with an additional layer of fear, said RA Staff Manager Sonja Sigler. Each day, caregivers were coming into work knowing that if COVID-19 made its way into the building that it would have to be through one of them.

“This fear of going to work and not knowing what was going to happen was only part of it,” Sigler said as she fought back tears. “There was this very real fear of knowing that if I get COVID-19 and I bring it to work that I could kill someone.”

Sigler and other staff members said that because of this fear and the priority of keeping their residents safe many of them limited their interactions with people outside of work and in their own homes. Community Relations Director Holly Schoettler said she still has yet to set foot inside a large store like Target because of the enormous responsibility that they all carry with them.

“We have come so far, we can’t take a step back now,” Schoettler said.

Miller empathizes with the Birchwood staff, pointing out that all health care workers are continuing to stick with strict guidelines while much of the rest of society has transitioned to a new sense of normal.

Despite the ongoing restrictions it has on her life, one young caregiver said it’s easy for her to keep coming back to do the job.

“It’s hard, but I love it – it’s important that I’m here,” said Madison Masso, who first came on board at Birchwood four months ago. Prior to her employment at Birchwood, Masso said her mother had a medical emergency that put her in the hospital. Because of the pandemic, Masso couldn’t be with her during that time.

“For three months I didn’t see her – I quit my other job just to keep her safe,” Masso said as she wiped away tears and recalled missing her high school graduation and senior prom last spring due to the pandemic. “When I was able to come back and work again I chose here because it was important of me to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves during this time.”

Petersburg said it's people like Masso who live and breathe the mission of being a caregiver.

“COVID-19 really pushed boundaries and limitations, but this is an example of going above and beyond solely for the benefit of helping people,” Petersburg said. “You all understand that this may be short-lived for you, but what you’re doing for [your residents] is showing them that their lives are more valuable.”

With the ‘hero pay’ package, Petersburg said there are still many details that need to be ironed out before anyone will know much more about how funds will be distributed. Though Petersburg said he personally would have liked to see more dollars go toward that fund, he believes that the money will never be enough.

“We really need to make sure that we show our appreciation and support for our caregivers,” Petersburg said. “We need to make sure they know how valuable they are to society.”

Miller agrees, saying caregivers should be prioritized by the decision-makers at the Capitol.

"In these facilities, [COVID-19] is a life or death situation and these people are not taking that lightly," Miller said. "Even if they don't wear capes, they are heroes in my eyes."

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @AnnieGranlund. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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