George Care Story

It is funny how these things come about.  I am not a particularly philanthropic person, and I usually don’t offer to take care of people.  I’ve never pursued hospitality or babysitting as a pastime, and I never suggested – even for a moment – that this was a career I would follow, or take an interest to consider.  These things never happen according to any plan, for sure.

I’ve had my share of weird jobs, for sure.  Cleaning and feeding birds at a aviary.  Bookstore management.  Teaching college freshmen.  Goat farm hand.  Band manager.  There are some jobs that are certainly memorable.  But taking care of people was never something I had done before.  I am slightly solipsistic by nature, and I have a hard time dealing with bodily fluids or anything slightly gory.  The human fleshiness of our mundane existence has always been something I’d rather forget, and it’s own ironic tediousness and ultimate pointlessness is a comedy that I’d prefer to enjoy through narrative, rather than experience.

Still, when I first met George, I knew there was enough common ground that we could at least get along.  I had no idea that I would be taking care of him someday; in fact, he was merely my girlfriend’s grandfather, someone I didn’t think I would see that often when we first shook hands.  Even when she became my live-in partner, and eventually my wife, I imagined that I would see George only at holidays and family gatherings, and that our interactions would be short, but friendly.

Time passed, and the world around us changed in a number of ways.  The details are somewhat un-interesting, and as they are of a personal family nature, will remain undisclosed, too.  But George’s condition went downhill, and soon the pacemaker and his pre-diabetic nature was adding up to a host of daily pills, and an attitude that seemed to be in decline.  Being 89 has a toll on someone, and he was never a health-conscious person to begin with.  His interest in playing cards all day long and sitting in a chair when possible caught up with him, and his years of military service and working for the State of Oregon couldn’t erase the damage of neglect and age.

We hemmed and hawed and tried to ignore the matter, but it became clear after he fell a few times, and then wound up in the hospital after his lung collapsed, that if he was going to continue at all, he would need someone to take care of him.  His balance was so bad that he already needed a walker, and if he was going to get the physical exercise he needed and the assistance with preparing food, he needed someone to be there with him at all times.  He could barely operate his inhaler he had to take at least twice a day, and while the house he was living in was just fine, there were enough challenges to everyday life that it made sense to make sure those challenges didn’t aggravate him any further.

The timing was quite strange, actually.  While I had grown accustomed to avoiding the word “unemployed” to describe my own state of being, when pressed I had to admit it was uncanny in its accuracy.  Within my close family, this condition led to a lot chores and odd-jobs getting put on my plate in an effort to exploit my particular circumstances.  I’m not usually prone to delusions of grandeur, but I found the joke funny enough to entertain myself, and preferred to explain that I was a freelance writer and radio producer.  While absolutely true, this statement tended to betray how much time I spent cleaning the house, and how early I started pouring my own cocktails, I also spend as much time writing and editing audio, too.  It wasn’t that I was on the couch burning Js and catching up on Adventure Time.  Far from it; I managed to keep myself fairly busy with job applications and daily routines like cooking and baking, not to mention leaning on my freelance arrangements to draw the occasional $50 check when all other hope seemed lost.  It wasn’t an awful way to spend your days, and I actually quite enjoyed it, but it was also very difficult to create the impression that I was so busy that when family really needed my help, it was expected I would take time out to wait for a package to show up, or spend hours on-hold while we sorted out some billing mix-up.

I’m not sure how the idea came up at first, but when it was suggested that I could be George’s daytime caregiver I immediately said yes without thinking about it.  I had been secretly preparing for this eventuality when it had become clear that he was not doing well, actually; when I still had a desk job that I loathed with all my heart, I would remember the weekends where I was talking to George about his time in the Philippines, and I imagined that I just wanted to spend my time listening to him.  Being new to town, he was sort of the only other person I knew, and the time I hung out with him became absolutely more interesting than anything I did at work.  While I was not in denial about what I would be doing, no amount of human waste and brushes with death could be as bad as the bullshit of office life.

Very quickly the arrangement of my job and duties were made.  I would show up at about 7 AM and stay until the afternoon, Monday – Thursday.  (Friday I would do a half-day, and would remain “on call” or “as needed” on the weekends.)  In addition to making sure he ate, and keeping the house clean the house, I would also work with the Home Care Nurse to make sure I understand his medical and physical needs, considering his condition.  After getting a full run-down of his medications, I also developed a exercise routine for him that was achievable for an out-of-shape octogenarian with a heart condition.  There were other occasional chores, like baking bread, doing yardwork, wrestling with the garbage and recycling, and chatting with George about everything, to keep him engaged and entertained.  We sometimes watch TV, but for the most part he doesn’t follow it anymore, and when asked, would rather have it turned off.

George lives with his daughter, who has been his primary care for the last 10 years.  She is in her 50s, and is my mother-in-law, too.  While she’s only a bit younger than my other mother, there are enough similarities to claim they have a shared generational experience at the very least, while being different enough to not have that creepy feeling when someone gives you a “mom” vibe.  While she is my mother-in-law, she doesn’t treat me like a “son,” and that tends to make things go more smoothly, for sure.  She doesn’t work either, but keeps herself fairly busy in a given day, with shopping and crochet and reading.  For her, taking care of George was easy when he could get around on his own, drive a car, remember to take his own pills, and could cook for himself.  But in the last 10 years, she has seen him become more and more dependent on someone to be there for him, and anymore it is too much for her to handle and do the shopping, and do the cleaning, and have a life of her own.  I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her to admit that she needed help, but when she did, she made it very easy for me to want to help.

Like many people his age, George is stubborn and set in his ways.  He essentially lives to have another cup of coffee anymore, and while he is on decaf – and now by doctor’s request, should drink as little as possible – I fix him coffee more often than anything else.  His meals are very simple: he can usually have anything he has an appetite for, provided it has low salt and low sugar.  I fix him a lot of oatmeal and bran cereal for breakfast, leftovers for lunch, and some sort of meal that I help his daughter prepare for dinner.  One thing that has not diminished over the years is his appetite.  He will eat anything, and always finishes his plate.  Outside of going back and forth between his bedroom and his chair, he also visits the kitchen and the two bathrooms as well, but doesn’t do much else.

We also have some of the same conversations every day.  Part of the problem with George is that he is not at all forthcoming with anything about himself.  While he will occasionally contribute to a conversation, he is very much of an age where it was impertinent to talk about yourself, and clearly comes from a long line of people who preferred to put up with minor inconveniences so that he isn’t a burden on anyone.  And this is easy enough for him to think he needs to continue with, too; unfortunately at his age, he tends to forget how old his actually is.  So I usually have to go through a series of questions with him.  “How are you feeling?  Is there any unusual pain that you’re experiencing?  How’s your foot?  How’s your hand?  Do you need a pair reliever?”  By way of example: over two days I kept asking him how he felt, and his response was, “I feel like my head is in a fog.”  I tried to get him to elaborate, but he couldn’t say any more.  “Do you have a headache?”  “Not really, no.”  “Does your scalp hurt?”  “Of course not.”  “What do you mean, fog?”  “You know… what’s the word… it’s in a fog.”  By the end of the second day I was finally able to get him to say, “Well, you know when you feel pressure in your head?  Like your nose is stuffed up?”  Ahhhhhhhh.  I have a decongestant right here, George.  Let me get it.

There are a few consistent problems that we are regularly combatting.  Because of various problems he is suffering from, his left hand and his left leg have a tendency to swell.  As it was explained to me, fluid is pooling up because he is not very active.  So, whenever possible, we need to elevate his arm, and when he naps or sleeps, elevate his feet.  Improving his hygiene was a challenge, too; showers were difficult for him, and even when they were successful, exhausted him for the rest of the day.  So a professional started showing up once a week to get him in and out of the shower without a fall.  And, while this is embarrassing – and I do not mean to take away any of his dignity with this – he does have a consistent problem with wetting the bed and shitting himself.  However, I have chosen to see that as a boon; one negative health sign is when he stops being regular, and at least for now, he has absolutely no problem with that.

The biggest challenge I faced in the early days of taking care of George was cleaning his room.  Soon after I started coming over I realized that George’s daughter hadn’t been in to clean his room in ages.  Part of this was out of practical problems; while we has napping and sleeping was a bad time, and between feeding him and helping him with anything else, there was often little time to get in there before he wanted to take a nap again.  Combine that with the other daily chores she was handling, and it was easy enough for anything in George’s room to be forgotten once he closed the door.  So when I began to poke around and find the dust and filth building up in the corners, I realized I had to undertake the task of diverting a river into his room.

As explained by the Home Care professional, as people age the tend to sluff off more dead skin that the average person, which creates more dander and dust that normal.  That, combined with the detritus of being an old person with terrible memory – led to tissues and paper towels soaked in who-knows what kind of fluid accumulating in various corners of his room.  And, as the professional said, it was important to clean this often, as dander can lead to lung infections if you breath it too often.  So each time I would try to get in there and clean, all I saw was George’s DNA floating suspended in every corner of that room.

 

 

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