Monday, April 2, 2012

Saving Takes on a Whole New Meaning

Saving seniors in the surrounding community is a goal for many of us who work with seniors.  In every city, there is a selection of elderly men and women who are alone and neglected.  They may be home bound, unable to shop for food, and often lack the basic necessities to keep them safe and healthy.   Often, it is a family member who lives out of state, or a state agency, or a civil servant such as a fireman or a policeman who alerts us that a person is living in a precarious situation.  In these cases, it is our goal to find a suitable way to assist or relocate any senior we feel is in jeopardy.

Recently, to reach out to those who may have shown an interest in our community, my associates and I have begun to make home visits.   Most often we drop by to find an older person who is lonely, but moderately happy, biding time vacillating between living at home and moving.  On rare occasions, we encounter someone who desperately needs to relocate, and we do our best to find an appropriate place for them to live.  Even if we need to recommend a community other than our own, we feel it is our duty to find a safe environment for seniors in need.

Eva was one such person. I met Eva through a concerned neighbor, Sylvia.  Sylvia, whose mother lived at our community, stopped by my office late one afternoon.  She was concerned about an older woman who lived across the street from her.   She described the women, Eva, as self-sufficient although somewhat reclusive.  According to Sylvia, Eva was known throughout the neighborhood as  “the collector.” 

Sylvia painted a visual picture for me of the outside of Eva’s home.  She described the carport.  It was filled with 20 or more plastic bottles; each containing various levels of a clear liquid, set side by side, outlining a path to the front door.  There was a collection of empty terra cotta flowerpots, chipped and broken, scattered among the bottles.  Also, there were faded and dented aluminum pie tins strewn throughout, while several half empty bags of cat litter leaned against the cement walls of the house.   The front porch, she said, appeared to be a buffet for stray cats that lived in the nearby woods. The steps were lined with various flavors of cat food in half-filled plastic dishes. 

Sylvia admitted she had never been on the inside because she was afraid to venture further than the doorway.   She was intimidated by the shadows of boxes, old paper bags, and unrecognizable stuff stacked from the floor to ceiling.  She was concerned that Eva might fall, as the pathways appeared narrow and cluttered. “I imagine the poor dear doesn’t eat well,” Sylvia lamented.  “I’ll bet the stove is hidden under piles of junk. ”

“Does she have family, I asked.”  Sylvia pressed her lips as if struggling to control her anger.  “There is a son,” she answered, “but I don’t see him there much.  I know she is a cantankerous ole soul, but I would think that he’d at least help her clean the place up.”

“Your friend Eva’s a hoarder.” I explained. “She’s compulsive, and she can’t help herself.  I doubt that her son can get her to part with any of her treasures.  Would you like me to look in on her one day next week?”

“Oh yes,” she sighed.

My assistant and I visited Eva the next week.  As soon as she opened the door, I knew we had begun our next “good Samaritan” project.  Sylvia was correct in her description of Eva’s home.   From the door I could see that the entire two-bedroom house was stuffed with useless articles – old newspapers, plastic grocery bags, magazines, and various antiques from a former life.  Eva welcomed us; she seemed genuinely happy to have visitors.  We cautiously stepped inside the messy foyer, but we did not continue further. After a short conversation, I sensed Eva’s loneliness, and guessed that she was hopelessly submerged in her world of “things” and feeling lost and helpless.

For weeks, I appeared uninvited on Eva’s doorstep, which was still cluttered with cat bowls, at least once every ten days.  Each time I brought a gift; home made cookies from our kitchen, lunch complete with salad and dessert, or a big cardboard box to fill with items for the trash.  I was patient but persistent, and eventually I was able to convince Eva to visit a near by independent living community. I accompanied her to ease her discomfort.   She met residents who were social and friendly, and she liked the casual and affable surroundings. Slowly, after returning for lunch on more than one occasion, Eva began to recognize the benefits of moving to a happier place.  In fact, within a month after her initial tour, she signed an agreement to move into one of their studio apartments. 

It took another three months before we were able to relocate Eva and one of her cats to her new apartment.  Her son was helpful, but to some degree his hands were tied.  Eva ignored every suggestion he made, and even became combative when he attempted to sort and disperse some of her belongings. Finally, I introduced him to a professional who specializes in moving seniors (See my earlier Blog -Moving Mountains May be Easier Jan 15, 2012).  I knew that an objective third party was the only answer.  Parents often become resentful when their children try, even with the best intentions, to tell them what to do.

The community where Eva rented her new apartment offered to share the moving expenses, enabling Eva’s son to hire the professional senior movers I had suggested.  They painfully and tediously sorted through Eva’s eccentric possessions.  Finally, after several long arduous days they successfully extracted her from her home with only the items she needed.  Once she was settled in her new apartment, Eva quickly forgot about the things she was hoarding. The movers were then able to get rid of the rest at Goodwill, a large storage unit, and of course, the community dumpster. 

I periodically received reports about Eva’s progress from the director of the Independent Community.  It was surprising how quickly Eva adjusted. According to the Director, Eva participated in activities and became one of their more active residents.  Of course, housekeeping monitored her room closely, and encouraged her to discard her worthless items before they became a nuisance. 

Sylvia, my resident’s daughter, returned to visit with me from time to time, to inquire how her old neighbor was faring.  I loved giving her the gold star reports.

In early November, I asked her “Did you know Eva was an artist?”

 “No,” she replied. 

“Well, apparently she has blossomed and revitalized her talents.  She just won a Christmas Card Design competition.  The Corporation that owns her community sponsored a contest. They chose the Christmas scene that Eva drew to send to their professional clients.”

 I grinned as Sylvia’s face broke into a smile.  I leaned across my desk to enjoy the moment with her.  “It feels good, doesn’t it, to realize that some days, it is actually possible to make a difference.”