My work in elder advocacy requires a business head and a social worker’s heart. This is the story of my first client and his sweetheart Julia.
Each time I enter his apartment, I catch a whiff of old man and old shoes. He has kept every train ticket, bank statement and restaurant receipt since his early working days. He doesn’t like to waste the back of an envelope so he keeps those, too. He might run out of scratch paper. Don’t you know?
He can be rather persnickety this retired mechanical engineer. Back in the old days when everything was done by hand, in ink, immediate perfection was required. Today, he demands the same of me. I must only open envelopes with his father’s special knife. A perfect slice. All papers must be lined up, but he doesn’t let me staple them. Holes you know.
He is a math whiz, a keen thinker, loves research, and at age 91, certain he is going to live forever.
His apartment is filled with cans and bottles gathered from everyone else who lives in his retirement building. Sometimes he lets me take the bottles to my own recycle bin. But the cans remain. He can get money for those, you know.
He hired me because he thinks I am a professional organizer and he wants his things put in order. We are in year six with the organizing all ready. He keeps changing the system; I keep obliging. As long as we don’t finish, he won’t die.
We have crossed several bridges together. After living in his retirement community for a few years, he decided to sell his house across town. We interviewed agents. Lots of them. Eventually he signed a contract. With someone I had not met before. That was his right. Later, he had me write the letter of complaint about her lack of professional conduct.
I go to the doctor with him these days. We are now on doctor number four. Doctors are stupid and his ailments are not age related and he will decide what medications to take! Don’t I know his current doctor is a horse’s ass? But, he goes anyway.
We go shoe shopping, clothes shopping, gadget shopping. He loves on line shopping but needs my help. He gets mad at the computer screen for being too bright. It hurts his nearly blind eyes. Microsoft should fix that, don’t you know?
He needs help at home, and has fired every caregiver I helped him hire. They stole things like his battery tester and the old picture frame he meant to use for the photograph of his sweetheart. He has piles of cash laying around his apartment. But the caregivers took his underwear.
He introduced me to his sweetheart. An older woman who lives on another floor. She calls him Pal. He calls her Julia. He delivers coffee and a roll to her every morning. Schedules her hair appointments. Helps her remember what day it is. He says he can’t take care of himself because he is too busy taking care of her.
One of her daughters doesn’t like him. She even barked at me saying he is not to get involved with her mother. I told her she should know they are old enough to make their own decisions.
He found her on the floor one day. Crushed between bed and wall. It pained him to call for help. Julia went to the hospital. He wasn’t allowed to visit. He isn’t family, you know.
She moved to a rehab facility right across the street. He walks over to see her every day.
He fusses, directs the nurses and staff, worries about her. Has dinner with her every evening. He encourages her to go to the dining room and stays to eat in her room when she doesn’t feel up to it.
Hers is a room like any other. Metal bed. Formica table on casters. The pretense of a guest chair so uncomfortable it makes your eyes hurt, never mind your back. The overhead light is broken. Her unmade bed is littered with used tissues. Olympia’s newest health and rehab center. Beautiful public hallways. Crappy private rooms. You know…
They are sitting side by side when I arrive. Holding hands. Julia is fighting to keep her eyes open. Her Pal is crying. I reach out and take his other hand. Soon enough, we’ll cross another bridge together. He who believes he will live forever knows that she whom he loves is dying. Don’t I know.