The McCree Family Home, with clay ducklings and fruit trees out front, looks little different from the other modest houses on the block in hilly Highland Park, north of downtown Los Angeles.
But what goes on inside is anything but ordinary. Owner Rosa McCree has molded together a family of elderly boarders who share the home with three dogs, two turtles, a cat, a rabbit and neighborhood children who wander in and out. That cheerful melange, said the 53-year-old McCree, "is what makes this house a home."
The McCree Family Home is a board-and-care business. The "family" includes McCree's live-in niece, who helps full time, and a part-time nurse's aide who lives in a separate house on the property. The three clients, age 74 to 91, use welfare income from the Supplemental Security Income program to pay for their meals and help with the basic tasks of life--laundry, bathing and transportation. For their money--a state-set rate ranging from $531 to $551--McCree also tries to impart something less tangible: a sense of belonging.
Just Not a Home
In McCree's view, elderly persons who must live permanently in nursing homes and other institutions lose hope. "They have activities," she said, "but it's not the same as a private home."
At the McCree home, by contrast, an 86-year-old widow who moved in because she feared relatives were after her money is allowed to keep a miniature poodle. "I couldn't live without him," said the woman, a retired teacher who did not want her name used. "He's the only thing I've got."
McCree lets the dog out of the house herself and even prepares its accustomed diet of chicken. "We put onions and garlic in there," she said, "and he's happy with it."
McCree's background provides an improbable prelude to her current role. A muscular five-footer who was born in New Mexico and grew up in East Los Angeles, she has packed salmon in Alaska, spot-welded bird cages, driven a truck and sold fabrics. She has also tried her hand at running a Mexican restaurant and a dry-cleaning shop. A childless widow, she has a nonconformist past--which used to include a taste for gambling--that may have put some distance between her and her own relatives.
Found a Closeness
But in recent years, she has found closeness with the frail elderly, which began out of the travails of a 92-year-old neighbor who fell and broke her hip while feeding a cat. She took the woman, a petite Englishwoman named Sissie, into her home. "If it was my grandmother or my aunt I would have done the same thing," McCree said, "so why not for her?"
After Sissie died in 1984, McCree read a newspaper advertisement for Glendale's SHINE foster-care program, which gave her training in caring for the elderly. She upgraded her home to meet board-and-care standards, state records show, and since then has taken in several boarders.
The residents cope in various ways with the difficulties of loneliness and declining health. One, a 76-year-old widow with kidney failure, wanted only to return home and die peacefully--which she eventually did. McCree remembers with particular affection a stroke victim who felt embarrassed about dropping food during meals. His fears seemed confirmed when he dropped some strawberry Jell-O on the floor last Thanksgiving. But as McCree tells the story, her niece casually scooped it up on her way into the kitchen, causing little stir.
'Part of the Family'
"You could see that he understood they (the guests) weren't making a big thing about it," she noted with pride. "They knew he was part of the family."
There are tough moments. One resident, a 91-year-old former minor-league baseball player, fell out of bed recently and opened up a gash on his head. The ambulance arrived at 2 a.m., and McCree waited in the emergency room until doctors said he could return home at 6 a.m.
The payoff, she said, has nothing to do with money. "If the refrigerator went out, I wouldn't have to worry about the cost of another one," she said, "but I'm not going to get rich. This is something I like to do."