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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Share the Care Success Story - Donna Cohen

When Donna Cohen started losing her eyesight ten years ago, she wasn’t sure how she’d manage. Diagnosed with Glaucoma, an eye disease most common in older adults, the very active and independent Cohen curtailed tennis and bridge, and stopped driving altogether. Adjusting to this new reality, also meant having to rely more on others for such simple things as grocery shopping and getting around Napa.

“I had to find another way to exist,” remembers Cohen, who also found herself as a primary caregiver of her aging male friend. His needs kept her increasingly confined to home socially isolated. Though she could hire a cook, and a housekeeper, it was conversation and companionship that she really missed.

It was Cohen’s daughter, Terry, who reached out to Share the Care and asked whether there were any Friendly Visitors who could help her mom with getting out of the house and perhaps doing something fun.

“We had just started Share the Care,” says founder Yvonne Baginski, “and knew that there are many people living alone in Napa County who needed company. Our Friendly Visitors were just completing their training, and pretty nervous about going out to meet new people.” About six volunteers committed to working with aging people at home, and of these, a match was found for Cohen.

American Canyon resident, Betsy Kere, turned out to be the perfect for Cohen. And, visiting her monthly over the past four years, she has now become a dear friend. Together, they’ve lunched at numerous restaurants, had manicures/pedicures, exchanged Christmas gifts and developed a close friendship that both rely on through time. Kerr helped Cohen deal with the stress of putting her friend into an assisted living facility, and eventually mourning his death. And, Cohen has helped Kerr by introducing her to a bridge group that she now regularly attends.

“Betsy and I took to each other right away,” says Cohen. “Part of our relationship is that we help each other.” Having a new friend was of value to Cohen, but she was also working on writing a novel, and needed some assistance there, as well. Going blind made it impossible to maneuver a standard computer screen.

It’s the flexibility of the volunteers, and what everyone brings to the table, that makes Share the Care such a unique service in Napa. “Volunteers are problem solvers,” according to Baginski. “We are all capable of making someone’s life better. We ask volunteers to follow the path of most sense.”

At first, Share the Care donated a magnifying reading machine for Cohen’s use. Another volunteer, Tom MacDonald, helped her set it up and taught her how to use it. As her blindness progressed, the machine became obsolete and so she purchased another, with a camera that would take photos that would then transfer to her computer for voice reading.

Getting used to a new machine and software, presented many problems. MacDonald helped her, every step of the way. “I just didn’t know enough. Words would drop down from a sentence, and I would type in all caps because it was easer to see. Tom found a way to put it all in upper and lower case,” she says.

Cohen was writing daily, and after 47 chapters were completed, another Share the Care volunteer, Lynn Eastman, stepped in for editing. Altogether, Eastman has spent about 50 hours working on editing the book. There’s always more to do because Cohen’s revising on a regular basis.

In fact, the book has now expanded into a trilogy and while Cohen isn’t aiming to publish, she has fallen in love with the characters and makes a little progress on the work each day.

“I always had this book in my head. It’s my past-time,” she says with a smile. Some days she works so much on her book and laughs, “I don’t have time to check my emails.” Cohen also orders books on tape from the Library of Congress, studying their formats to learn more about writing. “I go over and over the books, and learn how to use descriptions and move the characters from one place to another.”

Now, too, Cohen has joined the Bocce Ball League at the Napa Senior Center and uses a homemade tool to help guide her throws. She laughs, showing off the ladle that guides the ball. She has a new male friend, whom she met at the Widow and Widower’s Support Group, and now is busier than ever.

Altogether four Share the Care Volunteers (including volunteer driver Howie Broxton), have been a part of Cohen’s life for the past four years. Together, they’ve donated hundreds of hours in socialization, rides, help with computers set up and just being friends. While Cohen’s sight deteriorated, and she managed many obstacles of loss and aging, she always had someone to phone for support.

There’s no doubt that Donna Cohen is a Share the Care success story, according to Baginski. “There are hundreds of aged and disabled people living alone in Napa County, and we could use more volunteers to help in whatever way they can,” stresses Baginski. “We encourage creativity and autonomy in our volunteers…they are asked to bring whatever they can to the table.”

Share the Care also recycles and exchanges home health supplies and medical equipment. Available at the front porch at 3205 Montclair Avenue, Napa. Donations and pickups available 24/7.

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