Life got a lot busier for me in 2021. After being unemployed for 15 months, I started a new “career” in January at the young age of 64.5. At the same time, I began regularly helping out my 71-year-old, unmarried sister, Sue.
We all have our personality quirks, but my sister Sue had some particularly unusual ones. Sue is an ardent animal lover and purposely attracted wild critters (squirrels, chipmunks, rats) into her modest house (photo above) by leaving a trail of nuts to her open back door and into her kitchen. It’s obvious that that behavior wasn’t so much a personality quirk as a mental health problem and a precursor of things to come.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I began to notice that Sue was also starting to have memory issues. Most noticeably, she would get lost driving to or from our house. Medical tests revealed she had onset dementia. Sue kept driving until she had a fender-bender in January and her doctor barred her from the road. I then became her official chauffeur, taking her to medical appointments and grocery shopping.
Along with the dementia, Sue was a hoarder. The conditions inside her house were halfway to the horrors you see on the “Hoarders” cable TV show. The harsh odor (mainly a combination of cat urine ammonia, cat feces, and rotting cat food) that permeated her house was staggering. The hoarding and unclean conditions didn’t happen overnight. We noticed Sue started to become careless about her housekeeping habits ten to twelve years ago. It gradually reached a point where her neighbor friends would no longer venture inside her house because of the mess and the smell. Sue was incredulous when she was told about the nauseating stench. She freely admitted her house was “a little messy,” but was totally oblivious to the overpowering odor.
Given the progression of her dementia and her living conditions, the family needed to intervene. I have three other sisters who live in a house together in Florida. A plan gradually evolved for Sue to move into a senior living facility in the same Florida city. She would start out in an independent living unit (she’s already far past that capability in my opinion), but will transition to assisted living and then to memory care as the dementia progresses. Sue strongly resisted the plan at first, but gradually and reluctantly conceded that she was no longer able to continue living in her home.
The departure day was swiftly approaching and one of the other sisters flew up to Rochester to help Sue pack. On the day of their flight to Florida, we scrambled to catch one of Sue’s two cats and put it in a carrier. In the frenzy, I discovered another large, dead cat under the bed where Sue slept every night. After it inflicted some scratches and bites*, we caught the frightened, fugitive kitty and they all got on the plane to Florida.
Since then, I’ve been working with a realtor to get Sue’s house ready for sale. The realtor utilizes a crew of college students to clear out houses and over the course of two weeks they filled four large roll-off dumpsters with Sue’s furnishings and belongings. Extensive work will be needed on the interior; getting it cleaned, painted, and fixed-up before putting it on the market. Most of that work will be hired out. I’ve been very busy working on Sue’s finances and getting them in order. She had reached a point where she was not writing checks for critical monthly bills. Sue has Social Security, a modest pension, and had managed to squirrel away a decent amount to an IRA account, but the monthly bill for an apartment in the memory care unit will be very expensive and the funds will flow out quickly. The additional responsibilities of helping Sue have been a strain and a source of tension in our marriage. I’m just being honest. My three sisters in Florida (one in particular) have picked up even bigger responsibilities by overseeing Sue’s care from here on out.
Most everyone has a tale to tell about someone in their extended network of family and friends who is dealing with some type of mental challenge. I’m glad mental health is becoming more “out in the open” and freely discussed. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years before she died in 2014. My doting father ascribed it to “just a little forgetfulness” until the disease was full-blown and could no longer be denied. I have a fifth, married sister, who still resides here in Rochester who is only 66, but is already severely limited by Alzheimer’s.
I discussed the Gospel with Sue over the years, but she was not receptive. She was a school teacher for forty years and taught exclusively at Catholic grammar schools, but doesn’t believe in God. She thinks the Bible is “fairy tales,” but, of course, she never read it.
*After she arrived in Florida, Sue spent several days in a hospital due to a severe infection caused by the cat scratches and bites on her arm and hand.