The Caregiver Next Door

I came across this article posted in The NY Times on August 10, 2010. I think we all can appreciate the message; knowing that there are still caring individuals out there who have no connection to us biologically, yet somehow still live by the old proverbial golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. May we all be encouraged to look beyond ourselves and do the same.

The Caregiver Next Door

by Paula Span

We heard a tap at the door and then a voice: “Murray?”

My father rarely troubles to lock his apartment when he’s at home. His friends drift in and out, looking for a card game, checking to make sure he’s up and about, or bearing the latest gossip. Or, in the case of Jo Ann, who walked into the living room juggling several containers, bearing food.

Jo Ann (she’s asked me not to identify her further) lives two floors up from my dad in a N.O.R.C. — a naturally occurring retirement community — in Vineland, N.J. She and her husband Fred, who are both 68, moved in eight years ago. She was operating a deli at the time, and Fred was in construction, so at first they were too busy to pay much attention to the cluster of people in their 80s who gathered in the lobby every afternoon, awaiting the mail.

But then Jo Ann retired, and the folks in the lobby started asking her to sit and chat a bit. She listened as they compared utility bills, shared news of sales at the local ShopRite, bragged about their grandkids. She realized most were widows or widowers whose children lived far away: “I thought, ‘My God, they need help.’ ”
Her first overture to my dad was, “Do you eat soup?” After years at the deli, Jo Ann cooks in quantity, vast pots of vegetable and potato and cream of broccoli soup in winter, piles of macaroni and potato salads in summer. She began leaving plastic containers of food at Dad’s door; now, she leaves them at eight or nine doors.

I live 125 miles away, and I worry some about my father — at 87, he’s fallen a couple of times, though he hasn’t seriously hurt himself — but I don’t worry about malnutrition. Jo Ann is on the case; his freezer is full.
In fact, Jo Ann has quietly launched a one-woman senior service operation. In summer, she goes to U-pick farms, harvests bushels of fresh tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, and brings the baskets to the lobby; her neighbors descend with bags and take what they like. She ferries people to doctor’s appointments and the ShopRite.

When my dad woke up with intense abdominal pain two years ago (turned out, he needed gallbladder surgery), whom did he call at 5:30 a.m.? Not me, not the paramedics — Jo Ann. He knew she was an early riser, and she’d already driven ailing neighbors to the emergency room several times.

She’s recruited her husband in this campaign, as well. The building employs a handyman, but somehow it was Fred who wound up in Lola’s apartment fixing the kitchen ceiling light.

It occurs to me that there probably are thousands of people like this, unobtrusively supporting tens of thousands of elderly friends and neighbors in ways large and small. Maybe you know someone who plays a similar role; maybe you’re the one dispensing soup and giving rides. A number of the folks in my dad’s building are frail, with failing sight and hearing, walkers and canes. Some are in their 90s now. To have someone close by to call makes an enormous difference.

When I asked Jo Ann what led her to become an unpaid social worker, she mentioned that her father died when she was a teenager and that being with old people was a pleasure for her.

But at root, her motives are simpler. “They need help,” she said of her neighbors. “So if I can do it, I help.”
She and Fred won’t show up on any government or academic survey of caregiving. I doubt they’d even think the phrase applies to them. Yet I personally think she’s keeping a half-dozen people out of assisted living or nursing homes, and the only way I can really say thanks is to send an occasional box of Godiva chocolates (her favorite). And to write this post. And to be conscious, myself, of the older people around me who could use a hand.

UPDATE: 1:06 p.m. Aug. 31| Updated by Paula Span

Let me assure readers who voiced concerns about my father’s well-being that he manages quite independently for now. Though he uses a walker for balance, he still drives, shops, cooks (defrosts, more accurately), manages his finances, volunteers and takes (seated) yoga classes.

I frequently drive the 125 miles to visit and keep a watchful eye on the situation — he’ll be 88 next month; how long can we be this lucky? — but he doesn’t need me to make soup for him. He doesn’t even need Jo Ann, his wonderful friend and neighbor, to make soup, though he appreciates it when she does. I think Jo Ann and Fred help keep a number of old people in their homes, but my dad isn’t dependent on her and I’m not exploiting her.

But I’ve taken to heart your suggestions that there are better ways my sister and I can show gratitude than the occasional box of chocolates. I’ve bought a supermarket gift card to help underwrite her meals-without-wheels efforts and a restaurant gift certificate as a small treat, and I hope Fred and Jo Ann will accept them in the spirit I intend. My thanks to those who pointed out that I should do this regularly; I will.

About Sue Salach

Sue has a Master's degree in Gerontology and has worked with the elderly and their families for over 30 years and is the Author of "Along Comes Grandpa", a caregiving resource guide, and the novel "If I Walked in Her Shoes". As an ElderCare Expert and Keynote Speaker, Sue employs her comprehensive experience and passion, to educate and promote self-care values to family caregivers and the community at large.
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2 Responses to The Caregiver Next Door

  1. Thanks for the comment. I think there are many "great neighbors" out there who continue to provide care for others even though they are not related. I appreciate your comments and look forward to hearing more from you. Thanks for reading.


  2. Thank you for sharing that article, that was really great. I think it is inspiring to people to hear this story, and I think Jo Ann is the perfect example of a good neighbor. I think it was very interesting that her and her husband moved into a retirement community before they actually retired, but it turned out to benefit all parties involved. If you know someone like Jo Ann, tell them you appreciate what they do, and see if you can get involved to help where it is needed if you can. Again thank you for sharing!


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