45. Who Will Care for Me When I’m Frail?

I have been away from this project for quite some time, taking care of personal matters. Plus, with the raging pandemic and the heavy monotony of life, it’s been hard to feel inspired by anything.

Then I heard that a famous ballet guy said something along the lines that “you can’t wait for inspiration to strike you, like a stomach ache.”

So here goes:

Every now and then, my wife and I wonder out loud what will happen to us when we grow really old and frail. We are not wealthy. We have no children.

Of course, having children is no guarantee of care and comfort in old age.

We recently saw a documentary in which a man in his 80s went undercover into an assisted living facility somewhere in Spain. His assignment was to see what kind of care a female resident was receiving. Ultimately, he found nothing wrong with her treatment by staff.

However, in his report to his boss, the man noted that he had never seen the client – the woman’s daughter – drop by for a visit. If the daughter was so concerned, he asked, why did she not personally look into her mother’s care?

In the course of his stay at the facility, the man talked with many of the other residents. Nearly all of them pined for more contact with their relatives, while at the same time making excuses for them (they’re busy with their own children and jobs, etc.). One elderly, disoriented woman would stand at the locked gate and call out to the street for her mother.

That was hard to take. For years, my own mother has been calling out for her parents. Sometimes, she does not recognize her own house and begs to be taken “home.”

Some seniors come up with their own solutions to the question of care. My mother-in-law was friends with a widow in her 80s who had no children. Any relatives she had were back in Europe, from which she had emigrated decades earlier. She lived in a house that had become too much for her and had lost her driver’s license after accidentally crashing her car into a doctor’s office. She also started to have memory problems.

She decided to go live with a family in another town. In exchange for her care, she would deed her house to them. We don’t know how that turned out; my mother-in-law never heard from her friend again and had no way to track her down. It seemed a risky situation, and we can only hope that the friend was safe and sound in her waning years.

Caution works both ways, though.

A few years ago, the story of an old man’s solution was all over the media in Italy and beyond. He was 80 and presented himself as a retired teacher, a widower with no children or other relatives who could look after him. He garnered media attention after placing an ad in a national newspaper in which he offered a few hundred euros to any family who would “adopt” him as a live-in grandfather.

Offers poured in from all over the world. The old man opted to stay in Italy, and he selected a family of four who eagerly took him into their home. The teen-aged children had recently lost their grandfather, and their mother thought that the old man could help fill a void. Her own husband was battling cancer.

For a while, all seemed to go well. But, within a few months, the old man had left, owing the family more than 2,000 euros for dental work and other expenses. He later tried to pay his debt with checks he had stolen from another family.

It turned out that the old man had a criminal history of small-time fraud and robbery that dated to the 1940s. His “beloved” dead wife had divorced him. He had children and a sister who knew him well enough to avoid him. His career as a teacher was also a sham.

After leaving his “adopted” family, the old man roamed all over northern Italy, continuing his con game. Finally, he was found on a park bench, twisting and moaning in pain. He was taken to a hospital where he died, alone.

That old man had swindled and disheartened so many people that no one stepped up to pay for his burial.

As for my wife and me, we never come up with satisfying answers. We just re-affirm the need to preserve our health as best we can. Then we shelve any further discussion – and worry – about our care when we become frail.

Going it alone? – Portofino, Italia courtesy of “Mrs. Anton”

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