YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Emotion Is Tie That Binds Young, Ill to Old, Able in Surrogate Family

March 10, 1988|ELLEN MELINKOFF

I am driving home from UCLA with a woman I didn't know existed a year ago and who today is my surrogate daughter and her children, my surrogate grandchildren. Jean and the girls have found a father, a grandfather to love and who loves them. Someone they can depend upon in emergencies and for those special family occasions. For me, I have gained a new family. They fill a gap I didn't know existed.

From the diary of Lloyd Shelley, Dec. 31, 1987

Lloyd Shelley was not sure if he wanted an "emotional involvement" when he responded to a newspaper ad asking for volunteers for the Jewish Family Services Family Friends program. The 78-year-old Sepulveda resident, a retired phone company executive, was simply "looking for something to do."

"I went into it absolutely blind," Shelley said. But his relationship with Jean Ginzburg and her daughters has proved to be surprisingly rich.

"Lloyd is typical of many volunteers," said program director Marilyn Rosen. "They were not sure they were looking, but once they find it, it's just what they need in their lives."

The Jewish Family Services program matches retired people older than 55 with disabled or chronically ill children to act as surrogate grandparents. Typically, volunteers read to the children, take them on outings or act as a confidant, someone to ease the tension in a stressed-out family.

Shelley's "family" has more problems than most. Rachel Ginzburg, 16, and her sister Dorothy, 14, have been found to suffering from ataxia-telangiectasia, also called Louis-Bar syndrome, which has multiple sclerosis-like symptoms. They are confined to wheelchairs, have slurred speech and function well below their chronological ages. Jean Ginzburg, a single parent since her husband died four years ago, also suffers from Louis-Bar syndrome. She is legally blind and recently underwent exploratory surgery for a pancreatic growth and has had foot surgery.

Shelley remembers his first meeting with them, in April, 1987. "I kept searching for the next topic of conversation even while we were talking. I didn't allow a lapse of more than half a minute before I was off and rolling again. I tried to talk to the girls. This was a failure, mostly because I could not understand them."

Although he soon was able to understand Rachel and Dorothy--and learned that Olivia Newton-John tapes were a bigger hit than John Denver--Shelley realized his focus should be Jean, whose poor health and needy family left her with no outlets for relaxation or conversation. The Ginzburgs, who live in Arleta, have a live-in helper during the week, but Jean is on her own on weekends, and Shelley often stops by. "Most of my time is spent with their mother," Shelley said. "She needs me most."

It may be possible that a few threads of inhibition that entwine this woman are unraveling. At one point during the lunch, Jean removed her glasses. This was the first time I had seen her without smoked glasses, and, for the first time, I realized she is a beautiful woman. My immediate reaction was to tell her. I said, "With your glasses on, you are very attractive and without your glasses, you are beautiful." She did not seem embarrassed and replied, "Yes, I have been told that before."

From the diary of Lloyd Shelley, June 1987

Shelley has recorded his slow-growing relationship with Jean in a diary he keeps about his volunteer experiences.

He began by driving her to medical appointments. Soon he was taking her out for coffee and pie, enlisting his wife's help to put on birthday parties for Rachel and Dorothy, and holding Jean's hand as she was wheeled down the hall into surgery.

At first, he felt like little more than a glorified driver. But soon he realized that "just the fact that I'm here is important."

With his children grown and his wife working on a degree at Cal State Northridge, Shelley has found a second family in the Ginzburgs. Now he stops by Rachel and Dorothy's school occasionally to say hello and is welcomed by the teachers and staff as a close family friend. "Lloyd is a terrific man," Jean Ginzburg said. "The girls just adore him."

When it came time for bed, Rachel was a rag doll and had to be lifted onto her bed. Her eyes closed in sleep as soon as I kissed her goodnight.

Dorothy still walks like a guy who would never pass a (Breathalyzer) test. Tonight, it was I who secured the teddy bear under arm and got the first goodnight kiss.

Jean had had a bad time with Rachel before I arrived. Rachel had fallen between the wheelchair and the commode. It was only by sheer will power and the grace of God that she was able to get Rachel up.

Jean now realizes that it will only be a matter of time before Rachel will have to be placed in a home. It is Dorothy's reaction to this tragedy that Jean worries about most.

From the diary of Lloyd Shelley, September, 1987

Los Angeles Times Articles