May 17, 2013

St. Rita parishioner is named Caregiver of the Year

JoAnn Fowler Combs, center, receives the Central Indiana Council on Aging, Inc. (CICOA) Caregiver of the Year award from Orion Bell IV, left, CICOA’s president and CEO, and Mary Beth Tuohy, chair of CICOA’s board of directors, at a breakfast held at the Ritz Charles in Carmel on April 18. (Submitted photo)

JoAnn Fowler Combs, center, receives the Central Indiana Council on Aging, Inc. (CICOA) Caregiver of the Year award from Orion Bell IV, left, CICOA’s president and CEO, and Mary Beth Tuohy, chair of CICOA’s board of directors, at a breakfast held at the Ritz Charles in Carmel on April 18. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

At age 71, many seniors are researching where they will live to receive proper care as they age.

At age 71, JoAnn Fowler Combs is instead caring for infirmed family members in her own home, as she has done off and on for more than a decade.

She says she is doing “nothing but taking care of family and friends.”

The Central Indiana Council on Aging, Inc. (CICOA) felt she was doing much more.

That is why they conferred upon Combs their Caregiver of the Year Award on April 18 at a breakfast held at the Ritz Charles in Carmel.

(Related: Caregiver services available through Catholic Charities, Area Agencies on Aging)

“I have never been so surprised and shocked,” says Combs, a member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis.

St. Rita Parish secretary Denise Gavia-Currin saw a call for nominations in a CICOA publication. She shared the idea of nominating Combs with Combs’ daughter, the Rev. Patrice Fowler-Searcy of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Rev. Fowler-Searcy agreed, and submitted a nomination.

“There is no one more deserving of recognition for what she does than my mom,” she says.

Her nomination of Combs was selected from 20 submissions of essays on those who “model the attributes of courage, sacrifice, strength and creativity in overcoming the stresses and obstacles associated with caregiving.”

CICOA’s judges agreed that Combs’ story proved her an exemplary caregiver.

Widowed at age 32, Combs began raising her daughter and son as a single parent. She owned and operated a child care facility, then later served as director of St. Rita Parish’s child care service.

Years ago, Combs purchased what she calls a “pretty large home.

“From then on, I said if I had family that really needed help and couldn’t stay by themselves, I would take them home and see that they were taken care of,” she says.

Through the years, Combs cared for her second husband, who died of lung cancer, and her parents. Since 2006, she has welcomed into her home and cares for her sister, who is paralyzed from a stroke, and her mother-in-law, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

She even cared for her daughter’s ex-husband for four months after he suffered a debilitating stroke.

“He’s the father of two of my [five] grandchildren. He’s a human being, and he needed help,” she says.

“She [serves] with such a sweet nature,” says Gavia-Currin. “At times, you can be tired or angry and not want to [be a caregiver], but she’s always been patient and sweet, and that’s not easy.”

Combs’ servant attitude is fed by her faith.

“I know if it weren’t for God, I couldn’t do this. God has to be with you because it’s not always easy. He has to be a part of it.

“ ‘With God, all things are possible,’ ” she quotes from the Gospel of St. Matthew (Mt 19:26). “All I ask from the Lord is strength and to keep me healthy.”

Thus far it would seem God has answered her prayer—and added a little extra energy as a bonus.

“She’s been the Grand Lady of the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary for the last five years—that’s a big responsibility,” Gavia-Currin says. “She is on the parish council family life commission. She makes monthly nursing home visits. She finds time to visit other elderly in the parish. Her care extends beyond the two at [her] home.”

“I’ve been watching my mom take care of people down through the years,” says Rev. Fowler-Searcy. “She is loving and compassionate, and more than deserving of this recognition, and so much more.”

Combs gives the credit to God.

“He gives me strength, inspiration and helps me to continue to help others,” she says.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that this must be my calling.” †

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