"What's missing from this list is love ," my friend Bill Shirer declared after reading a recent newspaper article on choosing a care home for the elderly.
Shirer and his wife, Bea, own and operate a board-and-care home in south Orange County. Residents and their children all say they agree: Love is indeed the unique and vital component of the care given by the Shirers.
Just how does this couple, both in their mid-50s, demonstrate this love, this caring? And what pointers would they offer on choosing a facility for parents who can no longer live in their own homes, but who don't need skilled nursing?
The answer unfolds during visits over several months: It's in the aroma of Bea's homemade soup; the pies cooling on the counter, and when a resident stops eating, she asks his relatives again and again, "What does he like? What can I fix for him?"
This caring shows, too, in the way the Shirers try to be sensitive to the needs of residents. On one new man's first night, recalled Bill Shirer, "He was so unhappy, so afraid, so I just rocked him."
"It's like a family," he explained. "Some need more attention than others. If someone's hurting at night, we're up with them."
The home is cozy and relaxed, with winter fires in the fireplace, "family" discussions around the dining room table, and two gentle Great Danes that residents fuss over. (One dog alerted the Shirers when a resident fell during the night.)
Hugs and gentle teasing abound, together with constant concern. "I'm watching for two women to come back from a movie at a day-care center. I don't want them to fall," Bea Shirer said, explaining why she was standing by a window on my recent visit.
The Shirers were concerned about one resident, a former engineer, who had been depressed recently. But the gloom lifted, Bill Shirer said, when he asked the man to help with the repair and maintenance of a second home they planned to open.
It's the little things, the personal touches that can make the difference, as illustrated in a photo album that recalled memories of one former resident's 102nd birthday party a few years ago. "She was 104 when she died, and you can't believe how I cried," said Bill Shirer. "But the love I received from her enriched me so--and taught me how to love others."
When their residents are hospitalized, the Shirers' attentions don't cease. My father-in-law, moved from familiar surroundings of their home to the hospital during a bout with pneumonia last year, called out again and again, "Where's Bill? Where's my friend?" And Bill was there at Dad's bedside at least twice each day. When another resident refused to eat at the hospital, Bill went three times daily to feed her.
Truth in Labeling
The couple's name for their home--Heaven Sent Gentle Care--may at first seem saccharine and cloying. But those with parents in their home see it as truth in labeling. "Their care is a ministry," said the daughter of one of the residents. "And underlying it all is love."
Said Bill, "No matter who these old people were, no matter how many honors or degrees they had, now, all that matters is love. And the only thing they can give back is their love. We can see it in their eyes, even when they can't express it."
There have been many stories in recent years of mistreatment of the elderly and disabled at board-and-care homes in Orange County and throughout the state.
"Most of these situations couldn't happen if children would choose carefully and follow up on their parents' care," said Bill Shirer. "They must ask questions and listen to the answers--and not be afraid of hearing any negatives."
Some suggestions on choosing a board-and-care home:
- Don't just get a list of homes from an agency and shop prices over the phone. Go there.
- Don't make an appointment. Knock on the door; see what the home is like when no one's expecting an inspection.
- Look at the surroundings. If the grass in the yard is dying or the grounds are unkempt, forget it; if unpleasant odors are pronounced, something is wrong.
- Talk to the residents. Ask if they are well treated; ask how the food is, and what they do and don't like about being there.
- Ask for telephone numbers of residents' families and talk to them about the care their elders receive.
- Watch how home operators or owners interact with residents.
- Ask yourself, 'Would I like to live there myself?'
- Ask if your parents would have access to their church or to contact with others of their religious affiliation.
- Check out the food. Don't depend upon what the home says they serve. Make a surprise meal-time visit. Does the fare appear to be well-prepared and nutritious? Is there a balance of protein, vegetables, grains, fruit? Ask to see a week's menus and ask to taste various dishes.
- Ask if residents may bring their own furniture or at least a few meaningful belongings.