When I first met Jamie, my wife, she was a children’s therapist in Yakima, Washington. Her father, Bill, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the last year of his 40-year career with the U.S. Postal Service.
As I got to know Jamie, I learned of the attempts her mother, Vivian, was making to keep Bill home. Vivian had been told by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) that there was no help to be had if Bill desired to stay home. According to this official, Vivian would need to move Bill into a nursing home if he needed help.
After struggling to keep Bill home for a year or two, financial pressures coupled with the pressures of managing his care and the care of the household made it impossible for Vivian to continue living in their home. She sold the house and moved with Bill to a mobile home. The move was stressful for Bill, who had started to wander. Eventually, the demands of caregiving became overwhelming and Bill had to be moved to a skilled care nursing home.
As time went on, Jamie and I became close and she invited me to meet her family in Spokane. It was during that visit that I was for the first time exposed to life in a nursing home. It was a shocking experience to say the least.
I had heard stories about old folks’ homes but I had never seen one in India. All my grandparents had taken their last breath at home surrounded by loved ones.
The moment I walked through the nursing home door, the smell alone was enough to want me to turn around and walk back. Bill was unshaven and smelled bad. Jamie went out and asked for a nurse to change him. After visiting for awhile, we left. Jamie was in tears and I was lost in my thoughts. This is not how the richest nation in the world should be treating its elders, I thought. There has to be a better way.
Unfortunately, as I soon discovered, there is nothing unusual about Bill’s story. In fact, it’s a very ordinary story. Bill was moved to a nursing home when Vivian was perfectly willing to take care of him at home. The system had told her she had no way to get help at home. With limited means and in no physical condition to manage the demands of care on her own, what else was she to do?
Bill’s story lit my fire for elder law. It made me want to devote my life to helping families navigate the system so they could avoid the fate that befalls so many elders. If former president Ronald Reagan can live out his final years at home, so can you.
Later on when Vivian was diagnosed with kidney cancer, I was determined to give her story a different ending. I found a Geriatric Care Coordinator to help us plan her care. Fortunately, we were able to avoid the nursing home and Vivian lived with us for eleven years before her death. I am grateful for this experience.
Today, I consider it a privilege to help families rewrite the final chapters of their elders’ life stories.