“Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You” is the magnet on her refrigerator. It is a brave, optimistic attitude. Joy summons it up as she copes with her husband’s illness and their growing infirmities. Joy’s story is a good case for how seniors can benefit from shared housing.
We first met in the late 1960’s and have stayed friends. Her sturdy Russian husband, Walt, worked well into his 80’s, while Joy took jobs outside of teaching and helped raise her grandson. When I visited we sat in the sun-filled dining alcove in the kitchen that Walt built when they first moved into the house.
“We never really thought about growing old here,” Joy confided. Her husband at age 93, spent four months in hospital and now was home in their suburban house. He needed dialysis, so they chose home dialysis which happens overnight. Joy is his caregiver.
She said that Walt’s family all “just got sick and died” so they hadn’t imagined what it would be like to live with chronic long term illness. They hadn’t anticipated the exhaustion and isolation.
Joy admitted that the responsibility of helping Walt do dialysis was overwhelming at first. She had to do it all by herself. Due to regulations she couldn’t hire a visiting nurse or aide full time to do it. She also has to manage four different diets.
Walt believed in doing everything on their own. For Joy even asking someone else to mow the lawn was a difficult choice. She became so stressed she turned to Walt’s long-time boss for guidance. He gave them firm instructions to reach out for all the help they could get, both paid and volunteer. It wasn’t being unfaithful to Walt’s values, it was being realistic for them both.
Paying It Back
Years ago, while teaching high school, Joy took in as a foster daughter one of her troubled students. Deedee stayed with Joy and Walt through the trials of adolescence, married a much older husband, and moved to a town 45 minutes drive away.
When it was clear that Joy needed help she turned to Deedee, who had worked in similar care settings. Having lived with them, Deedee is physically and emotionally attuned to what is needed to keep the household afloat. They come up with the same ideas when presented with a challenge. Joy is able to pay Deedee, thus supporting another household at the same time.
This help does not fully relieve the isolation that comes from being caregiver to a partner who cannot participate in one’s social life. Joy’s near neighbors includes a recent widow whose husband died after almost 20 years with Alzheimer’s. Joy is able to join a group of the “girls” to go out for weekly dinners, attend yoga classes and participate in garden club activities.
For years Walt and Joy had a large vegetable garden with good sun and growing conditions in their backyard. As Walt’s energies drained they offered the space to neighbors whose tree-shaded lots made growing difficult. Now they share the produce and have the opportunity to visit as their neighbors are frequently in the garden.
Ultimately, aging in place with the challenges of illness, despite the support of friends, is made more successful with the brave, optimistic attitude of Joy’s refrigerator magnet, “Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You.” She keeps it in mind—action is part of her coping strategy.
About Sharing Housing
When I, Janet, described my interest in Sharing Housing—guidance and education for people who might be alone after a partner died on how to find a compatible home-mate to share the space, provide social connection and help cover the costs of a home, she responded “I certainly would want to do it for myself, rather than depending on someone else to match me with someone.”