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Michelle Sathe: My week taking care of Lois

Community: Lessons are learned and a friendship is formed when a writer becomes a caregiver

Posted: October 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: October 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Signal Assistant Features Editor Michelle Sathe, right, poses with Lois Hollisert, an 83-year old woman who she bonded with during her week as a caregiver in Pine Mountain Club in Frazier Park. Signal Assistant Features Editor Michelle Sathe, right, poses with Lois Hollisert, an 83-year old woman who she bonded with during her week as a caregiver in Pine Mountain Club in Frazier Park.
Signal Assistant Features Editor Michelle Sathe, right, poses with Lois Hollisert, an 83-year old woman who she bonded with during her week as a caregiver in Pine Mountain Club in Frazier Park.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, more than 65 million people in America provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend during any given year. Most average 20 hours a week or more.

For a week in early October, I became one of them.  Except I was getting paid.

My friend Gail in Pine Mountain Club, where I live, had been caregiving for Lois Hollisert, an 83-year-old woman with dementia, on an as-needed basis for a neighboring couple, Mary and Steve Butler.

Mary is Lois’ oldest daughter and provides 24/7 care for her mother, except for the occasional outing with Steve.

Since they were going on a long-awaited Hawaiian vacation for 12 days, Mary wanted to line up care she could trust for her mother. Gail recommended me and we would split the shifts according to our respective schedules.

At first, I was a little hesitant. After all, childless by choice, I hadn’t been responsible for a dependent human being since I babysat in high school. Sure, I was responsible. But could I be selfless enough to change diapers for, bathe, feed and dress an elderly woman with dignity and respect at all times?

I figured this would be an ideal opportunity for me to exercise compassion and patience. Being a volunteer in animal welfare, these qualities come easily to me with homeless dogs, but not so much with people. Plus, I needed the work. So I said yes.

Thankfully, Lois is an easy person to care for.  To love, really.

She has big blue eyes that crinkle around the corners when she smiles, which is often, and Lois is quick to give bear hugs, surprisingly strong ones for a frail woman bound to a wheelchair.

Her day, and therefore mine, started promptly at 7 a.m.

“Good morning, sweetie,” I’d say, gently stroking her blanketed leg or full head of light auburn air.

Lois’ eyes, deep with sleep, would flutter open slowly, looking at me blankly for a few seconds before the recognition kicked in.

 “” she’d ask.

“No,” I’d say, laughing. “Close. It starts with an M.”

Lois would eventually come up with “Mi..mi…chelle,” grinning broadly when I praised her.

“How’d you sleep?” I’d ask.

“Go ... go ... good,” she’d reply. “How ... about ... you?”

“Great,” I’d say. It was true. There was a very comfortable guest room downstairs and two big, black fluffy dogs, Timber and Pulu, to keep me company.

After 12 hours of sleep, Lois’ diaper and surrounding bedding would be wet with urine. It was my least favorite part of the job, but one I tried to meet with enthusiasm.

“Ready to start the day?” I’d say brightly.

Lois would smile. “You ... bet,” she’d say, which would crack me up.

“Great attitude, Lois.”

She’d struggle to pull herself up on the bars of her medical bed, hunched over but proud when she finally made it up so I could change her pajamas to more appropriate day clothes.

“Arms up,” I’d say, and Lois would slowly move her shaking, skinny arms above her head while I changed her top.

Then it was time to move her from the bed to the wheelchair, a process that took at least a few minutes. Lois would shuffle her feet slowly, carefully, pivoting to make it to the chair before we headed off to the bathroom.

As I changed her pants and diaper one day, Lois looked at me.

“Like ... a big ... baby,” she said, a wry half-grin on her face.

“No,” I said insistently. “Like a wonderful old woman.”

Another day she said, “Bony ... ass ...” and I laughed heartily.

“You are too much, Lois,” I replied.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were ritualistic, a litany of pills, a variety of potions and soft foods such as oatmeal, yogurt and cereal that soon became soggy.

Mary was insistent on her mother remaining as self-sufficient as possible, so Lois would use her left hand, the good one that didn’t shake, to feed herself. This process took about 45 minutes.

Afterwards, we’d exercise for 10 to 15 minutes at the counter, me leading Lois to do some sidestepping or leg lifts.

One day, she was too tired to stand for any length of time, so we did some arm exercises in the wheelchair, me desperately trying to recount movements from long-ago aerobic routines, Lois gamely following along.

Remarkably, my patience, which I am not known for, never wore thin.

Instead, watching Lois, I became supremely grateful for my ability to accomplish the simplest tasks. Walking down the stairs, doing laundry, going to the bathroom by myself. All the things most of us take for granted every day and, I thought, things Lois would love to be able to do again.

Taking care of Lois also gave me an incredible amount of respect for caregivers like Mary — nurses and parents, too. 

While it was rewarding, the work was by no means easy. Lois slept a lot, but during the hours she was awake, I was in constant monitor mode.

Sometimes, as Lois ate or sat and watched TV, we’d talk about her past. Me playing reporter, she was inspired by the photo of her husband, Bill, that faced the table or the wedding cake topper that held court in an antique China cabinet.

It was of a blonde bride and a tall dark groom, the porcelain figurine from Lois and Bill’s wedding cake some 60 years ago.

Painstakingly, Lois told me about Bill. That he was a nice man and she was the funny one. That  Bill, a man’s man, enjoyed hunting and camping. That everyone liked her husband, who had died more than 20 years ago.

At night, Lois snuggled with two stuffed bears. One was named Bill and the other was Lois.

“I love you, Lois,” I’d say in a low, manly voice as Bill the Bear festooned her face with kisses. She’d hold the bear tightly near her face, where it stayed throughout the evening.

It touched me, that this woman who could barely remember what she ate just two hours earlier had nothing but fond memories for the man she hadn’t seen in decades. A rare case of true love, perhaps?

As we got ready for bed one night, Lois’ long-term recall came up in a most surprising way.

I was changing her socks and my hands were cold, which she was quick to point out.

“Sorry, Lois,” I said. “But like my mom always told me, cold hands…”

“Warm heart,” we finished in unison.

“Awesome, Lois,” I said, genuinely delighted. “See, you’re one smart cookie.”

She clasped my hands in hers and beamed.

While my job with Lois may be over, our friendship isn’t.

I’ll come by to visit once a week or so, to talk about whatever she wants or just to get one of those bear hugs.

She can even call me Margarita. I don’t mind.


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