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Away from your family to take care of mine

I am struck by the muted light when I visit Robert at Gardenia Place. The sheers hanging in the bay windows in the front room are a sage green, fading to gray. Even when the day outside is baked in cloudless sunshine, I feel I’ve stepped onto the hidden convalescent ward of an otherwise unremarkable home tucked into a quiet cul-de-sac. 

A typical day

A bank of brown, faux leather reclining couches flank one wall. Reclining chairs hinge at diagonals on either side of the sofas to accommodate the residents who must otherwise be cocooned into an upright position on the couch. Robert is always in the recliner closest to the door, covered in a fleece blanket for warmth. He has never quite adjusted to the temperatures of Sonoma County. He misses the heat of Southern California.

With my back to Robert, I sign in at the clipboard on the little console table at the entry, squirt a bubble of sanitizer on my hands, press a smile to my lips, and turn to greet my husband of 38 years. 

“Hi, sweetheart! It’s good to see you today.”

“Hi, honey. It’s good to see you too.”

This isn’t what I expected

I have struggled to find my footing in this new reality. My husband is a loving child, slowly shedding the superhero cape of competent adulthood. He is unable to lift himself or shuffle down the hallway to fetch some item he forgot in another room. He cannot prepare his meals, or wash his own body. 

For four years following his FTD diagnosis, I cared for my husband at home.  When I could no longer manage his care alone, I placed Robert in a memory care facility. I love my husband, but I am like the perennially cheerful Kindergarten teacher who loves all the kids in her class but wants none of her own.

I have the assets needed to “outsource” my husband’s care and have done so. But to whom have I outsourced his care?

A good place to land

Gardenia Place is a board and care home with generous, private bedrooms for each of its six residents, a large dining room, a substantial kitchen, and a spacious living room. The four women who work at Gardenia Place also live at Gardenia Place. At the end of their workday, they retire to a covey of small, curtained-off sleeping berths behind the “Employees Only” placard near the door to the garage. 

Fatima, Daisy, Elysia, and Aimee keep the house humming. They are responsible for everything from resident hygiene to meal prep and housekeeping. Three of them work during the day, while one works the night shift. They rotate through the night shift duties on a four-week schedule. They each have one day off every week and must walk or Uber to get out and about in town. None of them owns a car. Once a year, they each pack their bags and leave Gardenia Place for three weeks or a month.

Where do they go? They go home, of course, to visit their families in the Philippines.

Daisy

Daisy is an elfin young woman of about 4’8”. She wears braces on her teeth and looks like she might be all of 21 years old. Ah, but she has a 19-year-old son at home. He lives with her brother and his family. She works at Gardenia Place and sends most of her money to her brother in the Philippines.

Elysia

Elysia is a broad, cherubic woman with enviable English language skills and an upbeat, gregarious personality. A long tattoo runs the length of her forearm, its rich, delicious, script proclaims her undying devotion to her girlfriend, Marcella. Elysia’s mother died when she was 15. Her brother lives in the East Bay, some 50 miles from Petaluma. Her father is trying to immigrate to the US, but it turns out he was still married to his first wife when he married Elysia’s mother, so the legal connection to Elysia and her brother is a bit muddy. Elysia sends most of the money she earns to her father in the Philippines.

Aimee

Aimee is quiet and reserved, upright. She doesn’t engage with visitors much. She is uncomfortable speaking English. Often when I approach the front door of Gardenia Place I find boxes of deliveries, many for Aimee. I pick them up and deliver them safely inside. Aimee collects toys and clothing to take home with her each year. She sends most of the money she earns to her family in the Philippines.

Fatima

Fatima exudes an unhurried, unflappable calm, gently directing the others to tasks that might otherwise be forgotten. She is my soul mate through this wrenching journey. Fatima was married to an ex-pat in the Philippines and was his steady caregiver through the excruciating seven months of his dying. She loved that man and laments that there is no hospice care in the Philippines. She lived on a reclining chair in the ICU for months. 

Fatima shares with me the changes in Robert’s health as they emerge. He needs treatment for his itchy feet, can I call his doctor? He is chewing his bedclothes, can I find a teething ring alternative that might meet his needs? He chews his breakfast but does not swallow it. Instead, he spits it out on his plate. Can I find a nutritional protein drink he might like instead? 

After greeting Robert each day, I head into the kitchen and find the ladies eating their breakfast. They wait until the residents have been fed and settled for the morning before attending to their own needs. Some mornings, I arrive while they are still cooking. The sweet, fruity tang of frying plantains greets me. Fatima’s iPhone rests on a tabletop stand. She FaceTimes with her family while preparing their meal. She has a daughter, a son-in-law, and two grandsons in the Philippines. Fatima is financially responsible for the house in which her family lives. She pays for her grandsons’ education. Fatima sends most of what she earns to her daughter in the Philippines. 

OFWs and me

Preliminary figures for 2023 reveal that Filipinos working in the U.S. (OFWs) sent around 37.2 billion U.S. dollars to the Philippines that year. Foreign cash remittances were 8.5% of the country’s GDP.

In the Philippines, the good provider is the one who leaves.

The discord in this arrangement is confusing. The unspoken compact gnaws at me. “This is not right,” I think. In the U.S., many families are a fractured mess of loosely bound households each striving to pay for the basic necessities of life. (78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck). Some of us, like me, have resources, but lack the extended family ties that would make it possible for us to care for our loved ones at home.

So we find ourselves in this place. Fatima, Daisy, Elysia, and Aimee have left their families to care for mine. This is not new; it’s the way of the world today. Even so, I find it heart-wrenching.

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