Two random things happened last week, which in hindsight, were perhaps not so random and may in fact have been a blueprint for the future. First I ran head first into a problem. And then, I met its solution.
My husband and I are contemplating downsizing to a smaller home and have identified a particular neighborhood that we think we might like to live in while our kids finish school. It's a mobile home park in Malibu with an eclectic mix of celebrities and rich people who use these beachfront coaches as second homes; families like mine; and of course, retirees.
Two of the homes for sale that we toured were occupied by women in their 90s, for whom, I suspect someone other than them decided that they should no longer be living alone.
In the first home, the woman was an artist. Her paintings covered every inch of wall space and wherever there was room, canvases were stacked on the floor leaning up against the walls. She sat at her kitchen table surrounded by her oil paints, mesmerized by her work as we walked through her home. For us, her home would have been a tear-down, one where we hired a company to come in and bulldoze it and cart it away in dumpsters so that a week later we would have a brand new pre-assembled coach with lots of high-end features put in its place.The whole process of erasing this woman and her 30-year life in her home could be accomplished in a blink of an eye.
Her only request was that whoever bought her home please keep feeding the cat that comes around. He is a nice kitty who belongs to no one, she said, and he keeps away the mice. I think she added the last to justify the expense of buying him cat food. She said little else, which was good, because the sadness I felt about the woman's situation was overpowering and it was all I could do to get out of there before I started to cry.
After her house, we saw another one, where the 94-year-old widowed owner sat in the living room staring at the TV on high volume while we went room-to-room. The woman's walker stood off to the side and my daughter couldn't budge beyond the decades-old family photos on a table. "Is that her?" my daughter asked me in a whisper, pointing to a framed picture of a mom wearing a swimsuit popular in the 1950s and playing at the beach with kids. "Shhhh," I hushed my daughter, forgetting that the woman in front of the blasting TV likely couldn't hear her anyway.
The listing agent explained that the owner was going to move to be nearer her children. The voice in my head translated "nearer her children" to mean "some kind of assisted living place." Again, sadness overwhelmed my ability to see the real estate beyond the woman's life.
Is this what it comes down to in the end? When the care we need means we dismantle our homes and lives and move to be closer to our caregiver? The answer is yes, of course it does. Our final chapters are written by those who assume the responsibility of our care. And in order for them to do that, their convenience often trumps our preference. Still, it left me sad. Independence is our only real freedom and when we can no longer live independently, we fall to the will of those who provide for our needs -- which is why the one hope we all have is to stay living independently for as long as we can.
No, I didn't sleep much that night, thinking of those two women. But an answer presented itself the next day.
I was having dinner at a friend's house and met her former college roommate who has been staying with her -- a middle-age woman who hopes to relocate back to southern California after decades spent in Oklahoma and who shared that she is looking for a job. I asked her what sort of work she did.
"I am an overnight caregiver," she said, and the alarm bells in my head went off. She isn't a licensed nurse and can't prescribe or dispense medications, but what she can do is babysit the elderly. She can be the eyes and ears for their adult children who worry about them and who live a distance away. She is a smart grownup who has learned how to help someone safely out of a chair or bed and into the bathroom. She has learned the safe way to help her charge bathe and dress. She reads to them when they can't fall asleep; she listens patiently to their stories, even when they repeat themselves; she plays Bingo and Scrabble and will watch their favorite TV shows with them.
You can slap a slick name on what she does -- how does "compassionate caregiver" sound? -- but at the root of it, she is an overnight babysitter for the elderly. And that is precisely what many need in order to stay in their homes.
But for reasons that I couldn't fathom, she is still looking for work while just up the road a 90-something artist and a 94-year-old TV watcher will soon leave their long-time homes and end their independence because someone else decided it was best for them.