the unexpected caregiverOur new house brought with it many new things…a new address, a new location, and new neighbors.

After our experience, it now seems odd that people in the market for a new home would spend so much energy deciding on the location and the price, but give so little attention to who their neighbors might be.  Some neighbors change lives forever.

Not long after my husband Peter and I moved into our new home, we hosted a “meet your neighbors” cocktail party. Neighbors arrived, mostly two by two, husband and wife, mostly our age (in their 50’s).  One couple, Fred and Hildy, were the exception.

Fred, age 83 wheeled his wife Hildy, age 86, into our front entry.  They were a lovely couple, totally unaware they weren’t exactly like the rest of the neighbors who came for cocktails.

A few weeks after our event, Hildy called asking if my husband and I would like to attend Fred’s birthday party.  I said to my husband, “Wouldn’t it be nice to meet Fred and Hildy’s kids and grandkids?”

The party attendees turned out to be another eighty-year-old couple and my husband and me.  That night we learned that Fred and Hildy had no children, no living siblings, no close relatives, and that Fred was Hildy’s caregiver.  Arthritis made it hard for Hildy to walk and macular degeneration made it difficult for her to see clearly.

We had a lovely time that evening, as we learned the rich history of this ordinary but remarkable couple.  In the weeks and months that passed we offered up small favors.  Can we pick up something for you at the grocery store?  Can we help you hang your Christmas lights?

One Saturday morning we were jostled awake by a phone call.  “Fred has to have some day surgery.  Would you kids take us to the hospital,” said Hildy.  Of course!  As Fred was wheeled in for a routine procedure, Hildy, Peter and I waited in the lobby.

Two hours later the doctor appeared.  He began to address my husband and me, but Hildy let him know she was the one to speak with.  The doctor informed us, “The surgery did not go as well as we had hoped.  Fred’s kidneys have shut down.  He will be in the hospital for at least two weeks.”

We wheeled Hildy into the recovery room to see Fred.  After the two shared some private words, Fred asked us a question that would forever change our lives.  He said, “Will you stay with Hildy while I am in the hospital?”  Of course!

I arranged to work from home for the next two weeks.  It didn’t take us long to figure out why Fred really wanted us to stay with Hildy.

Two mornings into our stay, we woke at 3:45 a.m. to the sound of the automatic chair lift coming down the stairs.  Both of us rushed to the hallway to see Hildy, fully dressed, putting on her lipstick, purse in hand.  “Get your clothes on, I’m taking you two kids to breakfast,” said Hildy, with energy in her voice.  When we told her it was way too early, she didn’t understand.

That experience and a series of other observed behaviors led us to the realization that Hildy had dementia.  Fred may not have known himself; dealing with those odd behaviors was just his way of caring for his wife. But he’d taken a big leap of faith and asked my husband and me to stay with Hildy, because inside he knew she needed help.

We learned a lot in those two weeks.

Fred recovered, but my husband and I were never the same.  We cared and loved Fred and Hildy for six years – through Hildy’s dementia, Fred’s stroke, many doctor’s visits, hospitalizations and nursing home stays, the endless rotation of paid caregivers, selecting prepaid cemetery plots, and finally hospice.  During that time we became their legal, medical and financial powers of attorney seeing to their wishes until the very end.

Hildy passed away peacefully five years ago, Fred, a year later, the result of another stroke.

The journey with our neighbors was one of the most profound of our lives.  For me, it changed who I would eventually become – an advocate for second half of life planning.

I saw how Fred and Hildy made many smart moves, but they also hadn’t prepared for some of the possibilities they would face.  Who would care for Hildy when Fred could not?  Who was to be Fred’s power of attorney when Hildy developed dementia?  When they could no longer navigate their house by themselves, where could they live?  And in their later years, who would they depend on?  If not for my husband and me, I shudder to think of what might have happened.

It’s with Fred and Hildy’s and my own personal journey in mind, that I became a contributor to LIVE SMART AFTER 50! The Experts’ Guide to Life Planning for Uncertain Times (Cypress House, January 2013).  Thirty three experts share their perspectives on life planning propelled by their collective wisdom and experience.

What I wished I had known then, is all in this book –nurture a supportive community of friends, ensure your wishes are honored when you can’t advocate for yourself, anticipate caregiving challenges as both the caregiver and the care receiver, create a home now for your changing needs, and enrich your life with purpose.

Last month, when the book came out, I visited Fred and Hildy’s graves and let them know their legacy lives on.




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