by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 9, 2010
PLANTATION, Fla. -- Here in Florida, live-in home health care aides are like mail-order brides. The agency sends you a certified aide complete with his or her own issues. You either get along or fight like cats and dogs. If it's the latter, the agency sends you another aide. And so on.
In September 2009, my 92-year-old mother, who lives alone in South Florida, began to suffer a run of serious illnesses that often hospitalized her. At home she required assistance.
Luckily, in 1991, my mother had bought two home health care insurance policies. It was at the dawn of these policies, and insurance companies would never again be so generous with payoffs. But the payoffs were in 1991 dollars - when they would see my mother through several lifetimes of home care. Need I say that is no longer the case?
When Mom got out of rehab the first time, she was able to hire a live-in aide from Jamaica named Patricia. The very first night, she confided that she was worried about her unemployed adult son. He was living with her, but she was afraid he would flee back to the islands.
Just after I returned home to Vermont, Patricia's son hopped on a plane and she fell to pieces. After that, she paid very little attention to Mom.
Patricia needed money and Mom was loathe to fire her. So I did.
Next came Marie from Haiti. The agency assured me that she was tranquil and beloved by all her past patients. They didn't tell me that she was bipolar. She was also enormous. Since we had to pay for her food, my frugal mother, who has to pinch pennies, was soon in a panic about the supermarket bills.
Eventually, the relationship between Mom and Marie turned into a caged death match. One day, in a blaze of glory, Marie fired Mom.
Enter Ina. She was a calm and competent older Jamaican woman who on at least one occasion saved my mother's life. Ina was wonderful up until the day we lost her. That was the day she told my mother that her brother had been killed on the street in Jamaica and she had to fly home to bury him. Mother said she would save her job.
Ina was replaced by Cindy. Cindy was also from Jamaica. She had six grown-up children. She was smart as a whip, beautiful, adventurous, and interested in self-improvement. She was always asking Mom about the meanings of words. They played marathon Scrabble games together.
But Cindy liked to push the envelope. She put expensive foodstuffs in the shopping cart, which drove my mother mad. And she would borrow the car - a big no-no for aides - and take off at all hours of the night.
Also, Cindy would talk on her cell phone while she was driving - another agency no-no. Mom was terrified.
Yet when Ina came back, my mother told her that she no longer had a job.
One day, during a fierce Florida downpour, Cindy was driving my mother to the doctor's when her phone rang. She took the call and started screaming. Her son, it turned out, had just been shot and killed on the street in Jamaica. Two in a row. What are the odds?
I hated to be the bad guy, but how could Cindy care for my mother during this tragic time? Mom refused to let me replace her because Cindy needed money for an airline ticket to Jamaica to bury her son. So for about a week, Cindy sat in a corner making phone calls, praying and crying.
After Cindy left, we apologized to Ina and she returned. Stability reigned. Then the insurance ran out and Mom was left alone.
My heart was in my mouth, but you don't get to be 92 without having a strong sense of survival. Mom soon found a few young neighborhood women to help out with doctors' appointments, medication, laundry and such.
And so Brigit entered our lives. She was from Germany, young, beautiful, bursting with health, energy and good humor and married to her first cousin. She claimed that taking care of my mother was a wonderful substitute for taking care of her own grandmother in Düsseldorf, whom she "loved to death." My mother adored her.
When Mom got pneumonia, Brigit often visited her in the hospital bearing love and soup. After Mom was discharged, Brigit became our permanent full-time aide. The Medicare nurse trained her to handle Mom's complex medication regime, and she was a blessed breath of fresh air around the house.
Mom and I started making painful long-term plans for her future, but because of Brigit, we had time. And I was looking forward to returning to Vermont, knowing Mom was safe.
Then Brigit didn't show up one Saturday morning. Instead, she came in the afternoon, bubbling. "I have good news and bad news." "What's the bad news?" I asked. "I've got a full-time job." "What's the good news?" Same thing.
It turns out that while we were making future plans, Brigit was sending out rèsumés.
And just like that, we who loved her were dumped. Abandoned. Heartbroken. "I love you to death" she told my mother as she waltzed out the door.
I repeat, aides are like mail-order brides. They show up and you take what you get. Their work is hard and undervalued. They come with the sun and go with the wind. They can drive you crazy, eat you out of house and home and steal your car. They can also break your heart.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.