Firebreather, unicyclist, sword swallower, balloon artist – as a graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Coy Meza can list all these skills on his resume. But if you ask about his life’s vocation, it’s always been caregiving.

“I made a promise a long time ago that if I stayed healthy, I would take care of people,” says Coy, a professional caregiver with On Lok PACE, when we meet at one of our centers in San Francisco. He began working in healthcare in the early 80s, during the AIDS epidemic. “Nobody knew what HIV was back then. My friends were getting sick, and I wanted to help take care of them. I kept thinking about all those people alone in their rooms, confined to a bed, waiting for a caregiver to show up, because they would be the only person they might see all day.”

Coy served as a volunteer in San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 86, which became the first dedicated HIV treatment center in the United States, and received training through Hospice by the Bay, supporting people who were providing care to loved ones at home. “In 2020, COVID was hitting hard, and I was working in hospice care and also had a side balloon business. On Lok hired me to decorate one of the centers and I learned that they really needed caregivers,” says Coy. “I applied and got hired on my birthday, May 31, and started a week later.”

He immediately connected with participants. “I come from generations of clowns, and I am a happy, social butterfly-type clown, which comes in handy when you are caregiver. I might take my rubber gloves, blow them up to create fun balloon characters. It makes people laugh, even during Covid, which was a really scary time for all of us,” he says. To demonstrate, he pulls some long red balloons out of his pockets and proceeds to quickly inflate and twist them into a poodle, a flower, a hat.

In addition to his native English, Coy is fluent in Spanish and sign language. As a clown, he also uses physical humor to convey emotions and actions without words. “Being a clown, I understand pantomime, so I pay attention to the body language of participants. They embrace me as someone who makes them laugh. My specialty is working with seniors with dementia. I am very flamboyant, which makes it easy for them to remember me. I have always been a little bit awkward in the way I walk, and I have learned that people with disabilities might do the same thing to hide their condition. ”

Participants will often ask for Coy. “I love to entertain them as I help them. If I am assisting with personal care, I play the music they enjoy and make it their personal shower experience, so bathing becomes a favorite thing to do. I don’t rush, so the participant can relax and take control as much as possible. Seniors should do what they are able to do, we want to support their sense of dignity,” he says. For his work, in 2023 Coy received On Lok’s Front Line Staff Member of the Year Above and Beyond Award. His skills also earned him a special recognition from UCSF for his service escorting participants to their healthcare appointments. Over the years, Coy has seen people of all different incomes get sick and lose everything they have to their medical bills. "I am glad there are organizations like On Lok that can provide healthcare and services to people on a low-income, and support family members who may be experiencing burnout with access to a day center for their loved one," he says.

What really spoke to Coy about On Lok was its participant-focused care and emphasis on quality of life. “It gives participants a chance to do the things that bring them joy – tai chi, karaoke, bingo. People are interacting, actually living life. The Prayer of a Clown says, never let me grow so big that I will fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. I love to see that sparkle in their eyes.”