Taking Care of the Caretakers
By Bob Shimabukuro
January 2012 call from my nephew Carlos in Virginia: “Mom’s in the hospital. Intensive care. She’s had some hemorrhaging in the brain.”
A stroke, I decided. The same thing the doctors told me when my own mother had a stroke. Later, they said “aneurysm.”
“Bad?” I asked Carlos.
“Well, she’s in intensive care,” he answered.
“Bad,” I decided again.
And it was.
My younger sister Ann survived, barely. It was a long six months later that she returned home after spending months shifting between hospitals, rehabilitation and assisted living centers. She was wheelchair bound, could understand what was going on, but couldn’t talk or write.
Her primary caretakers were her fiance, John, her son Carlos and daughter Marisela, and our sister Toki. Ann and John live with my oldest brother Tom. Toki lives about a mile away from them.
October 2013 call from my brother Ned: “You know anything about what’s going on with Tom?”
“No, what’s happened?”
“I was talking to Carlos, then he said, ‘The emergency guys just got here. Can’t talk to you now. Will call you later.’ And he’s never called back.”
Well, it turns out that Tom suffered a diabetic “event.” That’s what doctors call it. An event. He passed out, fell, resulting in a small fracture of his pelvis.
He didn’t return home until 5 months later, after being shuttled from the hospital, to a rehabilitation facility, and finally “rescued” from the assisted living home he had stayed in for less than a week.
In this unfair society we live in, the most difficult jobs, the ones many people can’t or don’t want to do, are often the ones we pay the least for. Taking care of other people: children, sick, elderly. People who need assistance of any kind. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. As a child and as an adult, too, I received a lot of help, for various ailments, mostly because of respiratory problems. But the older I got, it seemed as if I was getting better and more able to give help, while those close to me were having more health problems.
Since I’ve been thinking a lot about Tom, Toki, Ann and John, and the rest of my aging siblings I thought it would be interesting to talk to Hodaviah Okonda, one of the youngest PSARA members who works at an assisted living home.
When I asked about her job, she said,
“Basically, assisted living doesn’t deal with incontinence; those with that go to nursing homes. We help with the medications, food, take their blood pressure. Most of the people who stay there are sometimes forgetful or have some dementia. In assisted living we deal with minor things.”
This seemed all too familiar. At least for the more recent challenges with Tom and Ann. The more distant memories I had dealt with nursing home issues.
Any training involved?
“Before I applied for a job, I went to a CNA program, learned how to talk, deal with the elderly. And I had to pass a test, to get a Certified Nursing Assistant Certificate. Then after I got my job, they trained me on ‘passing meds,’ how to give a shower, how to remind the elderly about their meals, how to do their own laundry, how to talk to them.”
Okonda, who is from the Congo and came to Washington when she was 14, said the elderly in the Congo are treated with respect, but generally stay at home.
“They don’t have any facilities for them to go to. Family members take care of them. Of course, life expectancy is very low. When elderly get sick, there’s not much they can do about it. What we consider old here is maybe 80s or 90s. There, it’s like 50s-60s. I work with people here over 90 years old. They’re very strong, they dance, do a lot of things. My grandmother is 63-years-old. She says she’s old. I tell her she’s not.”
“Well, I’m going on 69, and I do feel old,” I wanted to respond to Okonda, but I knew I’d feel differently when I went to a Virginia family reunion of sorts for the wedding of Marisela and Angel. Whenever we get together, I’ve always felt that I’m doing better than my siblings…, well, except for Toki. Over the past two years I’ve gone to Virginia four times to help out Toki and the others with the caregiving. With all of our ailments, we’re lucky that we’ve been able to share our load. With Medicare and insurance, we’ve also been able to get professional caregiving, when needed, at nursing homes, assisted living, and at home.
From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. We were brought up by our parents to that ethical code. And it didn’t refer only to economic justice. It works as a care philosophy also.
What’s the wage for a CNA?
So the $15/hr will make a big difference?
“Oh yes. I’m the only one who has one job. Most of the CNAs feel the need to have two jobs. I’m the only one at my workplace who doesn’t have kids.”
So raising the minimum will not mean they can get by on one job?
“It will be a big difference, because some go to school, some send money back home. Some do both. And there’ll be more money for food.”
As the wedding procession was coming to its end, all eyes turned first onto mother-of-the bride Ann, accompanied by John, and finally to bride Marisela, accompanied by Tom, as they slowly and carefully made their way down the 75-foot aisle. Ann’s (and Tom’s too) caring community had produced nothing short of a miracle. Few dry eyes in the place.
Furthermore, Ann and Tom were on the dance floor in the reception that followed. I was surprised especially about Tom, since his ankles and heels were swollen, and we had a hard time getting his foot into the fancy shoes that went with his tux.
Bob Shimabukuro is Associate Editor of the Retiree Advocate and a member of PSARA’s Executive Board. Hodaviah Okonda is a PSARA member, a Certified Nursing Assistant, and plans to attend school to become a Registered Nurse.