FAIRFIELD — Jason Toner, 42, has come a long way since the days when he worked a variety of rough-and-tumble jobs such as logging, house painting and mill work.

In 1996, he hung up his work boots and began helping the elderly as a physical therapy assistant.

Today, he is recognized as one of the most successful physical therapy assistants in the state, a reputation fueled by stories of his willingness to love and respect the patients he helps.

“He helps residents to feel like they can do anything,” said Brenda Gallant, the state’s long-term care ombudsman. “He inspires them. He motivates them to do well.”

Toner, who splits his time between Somerset Rehabilitation and Living Center in Bingham and Sanfield Rehabilitation Living Center in Hartland, was one of 19 direct care workers in the state honored with the Excellence in Long Term Care Award by Gallant’s office.

During a Sept. 26 ceremony in Augusta, Toner received the award from Maine’s first lady, Ann LePage.

Gallant noted that Toner had spent his own time helping a veteran who was scheduled to receive a medal from Maj. Gen. John Libby and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for his service during World War II.

“He was very nervous when he found out that this ceremony was going to take place,” Toner said of the veteran. “He really wanted to be able to stand and salute General Libby when he received his award.”

Toner worked with the patient until he was able to stand with just one hand for support, leaving his other hand available to deliver the salute.

As it turned out, Libby told the man to stay seated, but Toner said that the work was still worth it.

“He was stronger,” he said, “and he had the peace of mind that he could rise to the occasion if needed.”

Gallant said that Toner’s was one of several touching stories shared at the event.

“People were actually crying, it was so good,” Gallant said. “I just love kindness. There’s something about it that’s just so inspiring. These people don’t make any money at all. Half of them don’t have health insurance themselves.”

Toner spends most of his time helping one of his 10 patients build the strength that they need to recapture a lost independence.

When he first meets a patient, Toner said that their expectations can be low. Many of them are grappling with the frightening notion that moving to a nursing home is the last move they’ll make.

“They say, ‘I’m never going to be able to go home again,’” he said.

Toner said that the most gratifying part of his job is when a patient is able to leave the facility to return to their homes.

With a combination of humor, patience and encouragement, Toner pushes the patients to recover their strength.

He deals with stroke patients who can no longer balance, shoulder injuries, fractured hips and knee operations, among others. Often, strength training is the solution.

“They don’t build muscle as rapidly but you can get stronger just from doing the exercises,” he said.

Toner says that part of his approach is to make the job fun and engaging for himself, his patients and his coworkers. He’s been known to open fire on patients and coworkers with a squirt gun.

Last week, he said he was able to improve a patient’s strength and mobility by taking him fishing and asking him to cast.

The man didn’t catch anything, but he still ranked it as “one of the best days he’d had in a long time,” Toner said.

In order to help the elderly, Toner said that young people have to simply understand them as human beings.

“As a kid I did a lot of odd jobs, mowing lawns and raking leaves for older people. I was comfortable around them,” he said. “They’ve lived their lives and given so much, so it’s kind of like giving back to them a little bit.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com