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.
Kathleen Vallee Stein