This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on December 22, 2010.
This is the time of year when we get in touch with people we only get in touch with
once a year. Many people I send cards to are in that category. Still, I want to let them know how I am doing and hope they will also send a card to me. Most of them are people I knew in the past but they still matter today.
One of those people is a co-worker I knew twenty-five years ago. I worked with her at a retirement community in Van Nuys. We were called retirement counselors but we were really rental agents. Betty had been in the business for a few years; I was brand new. She quickly became my teacher and I learned as I watched her gain the confidence of the most skeptical and worried adult child of a frail senior in search of a safe place to live. She would be there the day they moved in and hovered like a mother hen until the tenant was settled.
When we weren’t showing apartments, we worked together in the rental office. After dealing with stressed out families all day we often found humor in the absurdity of life and often laughed so hard we cried. We worked with people who were nearing the end of their lives, living in one room, often ill and alone, having outlived most of their friends and family. We admired them in many ways and treated them with utmost respect and affection, but we needed our downtime too.
Betty had been happily working at a state-of-the art retirement community in Montana but moved back to Los Angeles because her thirty-something daughter, her only child, was ill. Her daughter’s health was precarious and she had to be hospitalized from time to time. I came to understand that Betty’s job was a respite from her difficult home life with her daughter.
Several years earlier, Betty’s husband was tragically killed on the job as steelworker due to negligence on the part of the company. After a protracted lawsuit, Betty received a settlement but she was still alone in the world with her daughter to care for. I admired
her resilience, her constant good humor and positive outlook.
Eventually I moved to another job and Betty followed her heart and moved to Arizona with a man she had become reacquainted with through mutual friends. We talked on the phone occasionally and exchanged Christmas cards.
After a couple of years passed with no phone calls or cards, I called Betty’s daughter a few times but never got a call back. Her number in Arizona was disconnected. I called the corporate headquarters of the retirement community company and spoke to the marketing manager, who knew Betty too. He had lost touch with her as well.
It has been more than a decade since I heard from Betty and I have assumed the worst. I have to conclude that her daughter never let any of her mother’s many friends know what happened to her. I don’t know why her daughter didn’t go through Betty’s address book and call her friends. When someone passes, lots of people who knew them well, even if it was years ago, still care.
In this electronically connected society there is no excuse for not letting people know when a loved one passes. It leaves a gap in the relationship that can never be filled.
When a former neighbor passed, his son stopped by to tell me in person and I was very grateful. I wasn’t family, or even a close friend, but it gave closure. When a loved one passes, it is better to err on the side of giving their friends a call or email. It is best to let people know, especially at this time of year when people stop to think about old friends and miss them still.
This piece was published in the the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on Dec. 24, 2006.
This is the season that we remember people who have taken care of us all year –
people who cut our hair and our grass, pick up our trash and deliver our mail and
newspaper. If your paper appears at the top of the step every morning and not in the
grass next to the sprinkler head, you know that someone who began his workday at
4:00 a.m. is doing his job right.
Two years ago my sister and I gave a Christmas bonus to some very special people
who helped us immeasurably by taking care of our mother as she lived out her last days
in a board-and-care home. I don’t want to minimize the importance of my hairdresser,
gardener or paper carrier, but the people who cared for my mom every day,
twenty-four/seven, were extraordinarily kind and did work that few of us could handle.
As we hired people to care for both our parents in their declining years, we became acquainted with professional caregivers. The ones we met were patient people with a temperament that enabled them to meet the physical and emotional needs of very frail, very old people.
Every time I visited Mom at the board-and-care home, I came away with a renewed
appreciation for the people who sat in the living room of the large house with the residents, watching g-rated movies with them, cooking their meals and making sure they took their pills on time. The caregiving profession is largely unregulated and offers low pay and few benefits.
The facility my mom was at was owned by a very compassionate woman who provided as best she could for her staff as well as the residents. She struggled to provide insurance and other benefits to the staff and still make a living.
My sister and I took this into consideration when we sat down together to decide what to give the caregivers, with Mom’s blessing, as a Christmas bonus. Mom had been in the board-and-care for a full year and most of the staff had taken care of her on a daily basis. She could do almost nothing for herself and was incontinent.
The staff delivered her meals to her room, bathed and changed her and kept her spirits up. Mom was mentally sharp and often discussed politics, books and the weather with
her caregivers. She kept chocolates on her bedside tray and would teasingly accuse her favorite caregiver, Tony, of sneaking a few when she wasn’t looking. Tony always denied it in mock horror and called her “Trouble” with a large and gentle smile.
We decided to give each of the staff $100. I put fresh, crisp one hundred dollar bills in each of greeting cards that we gave to the staff. Tony told me that the bonus enabled him to buy gifts for his family. He had only enough money to go home for Christmas. Now he could buy gifts for his nieces, nephews and his parents. He told me this through grateful tears.
Mom died three months later. Tony attended the service and he had tears again, as did we all. He told me he thought of my mother as a friend. Then he said he wanted to get out of the caregiving business because it was too hard. I told him he was exactly the type of person who should be a caregiver, as difficult as it was at times.
Few people in the personal care business are paid as little as care givers of the elderly. I was grateful that my mother had the financial means to give Christmas bonuses to the people who cared for her. It was a small gift in return for their daily gifts of kindness, care and companionship.
As we think of those who we notice only when they don’t do their job, it is a perfect time to stop and think what their efforts really mean to us, how best we can show our appreciation and what it may mean to them.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on December 6, 2000.
Memories of parents can haunt us at holiday time. As I watch the lights go up and prepare my own holiday, I recall memories that will remain in my heart. I remember the time my dad brushed my hair when I was six years old. I remember the look on his face when I climbed so eagerly out of the car as I departed for college.
I’ll always remember the cold green walls and the tiny stool I sat on as my dad and I waited in pre-op for the surgeon to remove his colon cancer. The plastic shower cap rested atop his high forehead, the one I inherited.
The cancer was successfully removed, but my dad was never the same. Two short years later he was dying. It was a new cancer that grew in his cervical spine. Given one month to live, without treatment, he opted for radiation.
After three weeks of that torture, pneumonia set in. He couldn’t swallow. He was weak and had to go to the oncology clinic in a wheelchair. The clinician who was to administer his radiation treatment instead sent him to the hospital.
Caring for a dying parent requires the ability to assimilate complex medical information that has, as its bottom line, the ultimate question: What is best for this man who helped give birth to me, raised me and made a lot of mistakes while he did his best.
I had no better compass to avoid mistakes than Dad did when he had my tiny life in his hands. In the beginning, and at the end, we all do the best we can.
During his last two years, Dad, a very proud and private man, suffered from impaired vision, a bad pain in his shoulder, itchy feet, weak legs and lot of other ailments that left him exhausted and frustrated. His outrage was understandable, but his acceptance of loss and adaptation to “assisted living” was admirable.
When the radiation people turned my dad over to the hospital people, we knew it was the end. My mother, sister and I were ready to suggest Dad enroll in the Medicare Hospice program. I stood at the end of his hospital bed with my mother on one side and his physician on the other. The doctor told him my father that he was terminally ill and it was time for hospice. Dad agreed and we all cried together, but inside.
My sister and I clocked countless hours on the road, driving to the little mountain town in Arizona to which our folks had retired twelve years earlier, when they were healthy. Our biggest concern then was if they remembered to turn on the burglar alarm before they left on a trip.
Now we were spending our days trying to raise Dad up high enough in his hospital bed so he could spit-up in a basin. Pneumonia isn’t pretty. Add a throat swollen from radiation treatments and you have one miserable human being, relying solely on the people he had always cared for, to care for him. Now it was our turn to care for him, in spite of our astonishment, in spite of our pain.
We filled prescriptions, emptied the suction machine and the throw-up basin, monitored the oxygen level, and made sure disposable gloves were on hand for toileting. We used a maneuver called the “bear hug” to lift him out of his wheelchair, we balanced him on his walker, fed him ice cream whenever he wanted it and poured a dry martini whenever he wanted it.
We stood on the cusp of a new millennium with a guy who was born in 1920 and had prepared to die at the dawn of a new century. So many of his fellows will follow. I hope they will have the courage to enter hospice when it is clear that the cure-at-all-cost modern medicine is no longer necessary. Dad had the courage to accept that his days were numbered. We took him home to die in peace.
Hospice care helps everyone through the process of dying. The knot it leaves in the throat is soon replaced with heaviness of heart. Ultimately, it leaves peace for those who remain behind and a safe way home for those who go before.
Kathleen Vallee Stein