“Kookamonga!” Henry Radom, 86, answers the phone brightly, his opening salvo at telemarketers who are often on the other end.
Sometimes he answers “George Clooney.” Or “Godzilla.”
“Hi dad,” replies Cindy Mayer cheerfully. “I’m going to come by in a bit. Don’t disappear on me.”
She hangs up.
“He does that sometimes,” she explains, sitting in her Norwood Park living room. “Blood tests; it’s easier to take a powder.”
Mayer is a professional caregiver for Home Instead Senior Care, which pairs her with senior citizens who need help in their homes. In her spare time, she tends to her widowed, legally blind father with unrelenting good cheer.
“It’s hard to raise parents nowadays,” she says, heading over to his tidy home, about 15 minutes away in Jefferson Park. “With my dad I can have a constructive argument. It’s hard, because you can’t treat them like children. I don’t tell my dad, ‘You’re grounded. No smoking for two weeks.’ That doesn’t go very far.”
Mayer is the vanguard of a new health care front in this country. As the population ages, more and more people will be called upon to care for their elderly relatives, or, barring that, will be paid to care for strangers.
She represents an unexpected aspect of senior care.
“Most care actually occurs in the home,” said John Schall, CEO of the Caregivers Action Newtwork in Washington, D.C. “It isn’t in a hospital or medical clinic. It isn’t in nursing homes. Eighty percent of care occurs in the home. That surprises a lot of people.”
With nobody sure which wire to snip on the pension time bomb, and climate change increasingly clear, even to heretofore head-in-the-sand Republicans, I hate to add another immense social problem to the list of crises we aren’t coping with. But the elderly population is exploding. For all of human history you could view population as a pyramid, with a broad base of children, a smaller, yet substantial level element of young adults, fewer people in their prime, fewer above them in late middle age, tapering year by year to a small apex of elderly atop the pyramid.
That was the past. Now the population pyramid increasingly resembles a tower, where there are almost as many older adults as there are children. In the next 45 years, the world will add 1.1 billion people between the ages of 60 and 75, a 130 percent increase. Meanwhile, the number of children and teenagers will increase by only 9 percent.
So expect the youth culture spawned by the Baby Boom to give way to a senescent culture. Clorox has already rolled out Care Concepts, a line of medical items normally found in nursing homes — non-latex exam gloves, hand sanitizer, stain remover, germicidal non-bleach spray, disinfecting and deodorizing sprays — now marketed to private caregivers through stores, a growing business.
“If you took economic value of unpaid family care giving is $450 billion a year, twice as much as nation spends on all nursing home care and all paid in home care combined,” Schall said.
Most of us will grow old. The lucky ones will have a Cindy Mayer looking after us.
“When I’m not working, I’m trying to meet my dad,” she says, noting how isolated older people can become at home.
“He doesn’t suffer from dementia, he suffers from LDD — long damn day,” she says. “My mom’s gone nine-and-a-half years. It was hard for him. I stayed with him a few weeks. My dad was never a social butterfly.”
“I don’t know the washer from the dryer.” her father told her.
“Dad, as long as I’m alive, you don’t need to,” Mayer replied.
Elderly people prefer home care for a variety of reasons. It’s cheaper. They’re in a familiar place. There is none of the social stresses that can make a nursing home seem like a junior high school, only with meaner cliques.
“It’s pretty much an unrecognized issue, which is surprising, given the tens of millions of people who are family caregivers,” said Schall, whose group has a website, caregiveraction.org, designed to help those caring for others.
“Families caregivers themselves don’t immediately self-identify as family caregivers. They don’t know there’s a word or a term. They think of it as just what they do for their family or loved ones.”
Well, not everybody. Mayer has tales of seniors ignored or neglected by their families.
“I have families who just want to write the check,” she says. Some don’t even want to do that. Mayer views the chance to care for her dad, who came to Chicago from Poland in the 1950s, as a blessing.
“I’m very grateful that my dad is still at home,” she says. “We don’t live too far from one another. I’m there every day, sometimes more. I help him with all his banking [and] bills. Neither of our homes look how they should be. But it’s OK. You have to laugh this stuff off.”
Mayer points out that the care she gives to her dad is the same care she gives to elderly people she visits, whether in their homes or in nursing homes.
“I’ve been in nursing homes where the residents are lined up in wheelchairs — it’s very sad,” Mayer said. “If you could just say ‘Good morning’ to somebody, that’s all, they’ll probably talk about that little interaction for the rest of the week. It’s very important, what we do. Not the best-paying job. People think it’s an easy job, but it’s not. You’re responsible for someone’s loved one. A human being.”