It’s been a couple of months ago now since I got a phone call from Martha. Martha is my stepfather’s niece, a woman a little younger than I. We are joined together by our relationship with Tom, my stepfather and Martha’s uncle, who is 90 years old and clearly failing, both physically and mentally.
Neither Martha nor I were particularly close to Tom: Tom and Martha’s father didn’t get along, and Tom married my mother long after I had married and left home. But Tom is a loveable man—unfailingly polite and kind, well-mannered and a good husband. He had no children of his own—Martha and I were his closest family and both of us live miles away from him.
Tom was in trouble, said Martha over the phone. Seems he’d been stopped by the state police for driving a little too slowly and erratically on the freeway, and they had impounded his car and put him in a medical center until someone could rescue him. That someone was me.
The rescue made it clear to Martha and to me that we were facing a real problem with Tom. Within an hour of bailing him out of the hospital and bringing him home, he was convinced that nothing had happened, he was just fine, and could he take us out to dinner? (He’d be glad to drive…) Martha and I confiscated his car keys and began to understand the extent to which his world was a danger to him.
We agonized: how can we say, “You don’t know me, but I am here to take over your life?” to such a dear man? How can we say, “No driving. You can no longer live alone. Someone must insulate you from the legion of shysters who flock to you because you are so good-hearted and you can’t say no? You need someone to help you on a daily basis, even if you don’t want anyone around.”
And then we found the bills. Mountains of them. Unpaid taxes. Three lawn services every week. What seemed like fifty ‘investment advisors’ who call and aggressively and nastily demand you buy their silver shares and technology stocks. Charities for every imaginable human cause from crippled soldiers to missing babies.
Martha and I, both in an unfamiliar city, flailed our way through the myriad of services for the elderly, attorneys, CPAs, banks, and well-meaning neighbors and friends, trying to bring order into this mess. Martha kept saying, “But I TOLD him that just ten minutes ago”, and Tom kept forgetting all the good advice we were giving.
“Martha,” I said, “it’s like putting your finger in a mountain stream. When you pull it out there’s nothing left, no sign you were ever there. The water just keeps running by.”
Now, six weeks later, Tom has a 24-hour caretaker—which can’t last long, because we’re getting a good handle on how much money has been lost to the sharks who prey on the elderly, the kind, and the gullible. We’re working on finding a place for him to live which can be funded by his social security and his military pension, probably in a city strange to him but close to Martha, who will visit him on weekends.
Every week I visit some of my older friends who are living now at Orchard Creek and we talk about my stepfather and what can be done. I tell them how intrusive I feel and how sad, and they tell me how important it is to make the choices that have to me made while you still have the ability to chose.
I nod in agreement and think that it’s far too late for Tom.