Thursday, March 10, 2016

On Friendship

Ministerial Meditations

by The Rev. Connie Yost 
March 10, 2016

Jan and Me

On Friendship

My friend Jan recently gave me a birthday card, which perhaps doesn’t sound very remarkable except for two things:  1) it wasn’t my birthday and 2) she thanked me and said “I love you very much.”

I have known Jan for about 40 years, and though I moved away from Seattle where she continued to live, I tried to keep in touch with her when I came back to visit.  In the beginning of our friendship, I wasn’t aware that she had a neurological condition.  But over the years, she became progressively more unable to take care of herself.  For years, she lived in a little rented house near Seward Park.  She enjoyed cooking and gardening and her cat, Baby.  She had help that came in a few times a week.  Then she started to have falls, and surgeries, and a stroke.  On the phone one day she told me that she had had to move from the little house into an adult family home on Beacon Hill.  Though it was hard to give up the independence that she had had, the worst thing was that she couldn’t take Baby with her.  A cat person myself, I grieved for her.

Jan lived in that first adult family home for about 5 years, then was told she was moving one morning.  She never did know why.  The new adult family home was visually unappealing to me, located next to an auto repair shop with a dump of tires visible in the back yard.  But Jan became quite attached to the older woman who cared for her, and she had a large room to herself.  All seemed well for a couple of years until her caregiver went to the hospital for back surgery.  A new, younger couple took over as the caregivers.  Jan thought this was temporary until the older caregiver recovered enough to come back, but as the months went on it became clear that the younger couple was there to stay. 

Over the next year or so, I noticed that Jan often felt that she couldn’t talk with me on the phone.  When I visited her in person, she began to hint that she didn’t feel comfortable with the new caregivers.  I had a run-in with the caregiver on the phone who refused to give me Jan’s mailing address because I wasn’t listed as one of her contacts.  (Even though this caregiver had met me in person.)  Finally, Jan admitted that she was just waiting for the older woman to come back.

Just as I was deciding to call Jan’s family to let them know of the situation, the young caregiver called me out of the blue and demanded that I tell her if I had concerns about Jan’s care.  This phone call coming like it did after I had not visited for months really concerned me.  I called Jan later that evening and found out that her social worker had called the caregiver to explore some concerns that Jan had expressed.  I called Jan’s family right away and told them of the situation, and they promised to look into it.

I waited for over a month to hear that Jan’s family had intervened.  When that didn’t happen, I asked Jan to appoint me as her Power of Attorney so that I could talk with all the appropriate agencies to get her some help.   A month later, Jan was given an eviction notice from the adult family home, on the basis that she was not taking her medication (a controlled substance for pain), was hiding it in different locations in her room, and was a danger to the other residents who might find the pills and swallow them.  Jan vehemently denied these allegations, and I believed them to be false.  Why would she not take her pain meds?  If she didn’t take her pain meds, she would have been in a lot of pain, which she wasn’t.  And further, isn’t the caregiver supposed to give the medications and watch while the person takes them?

To make a long story short, I helped Jan move to another adult family home in Seattle which sadly turned out to be better only for a few months until the main caregiver left and things quickly went downhill.   Finally, I asked Jan if she would be willing to move to Portland so I could better help her.  She agreed, and moved into her new adult family home in East Portland right before Thanksgiving.  

Now she has wonderful caregivers, a nice private room with a half-bath all her own.  All her care is taken care of through the Providence Elderplace program where she goes twice a week for her physical and occupational therapy, bingo and other activities and lunch.  I visit with Jan at least once a week at her home, and have her over for dinner at my house so she can meet some of my friends, too.  We’re having fun playing games like Uno, Yahtzee and Rummikub.  I found a nice Presbyterian church near her home which is accessible and elder-friendly.  Coincidentally, the pastor of this church did her internship at the church Jan attended in Seattle.  Good signs and connections all around.  I breathe a sigh of relief and gratitude that my dear friend is doing well.

Jan has really taught me a lot about what it means to be a friend.  Though she has been through so much herself, she never fails to ask me how I’m doing.  She may have memory lapses nowadays, but she still has an unfailing ability to size up people and situations.  She still feels passionately about social justice and equality for everyone.  She truly appreciates the ministry I do for others, and everything I have done for her.  She knows my struggles and marvels at my successes.  

That is why the birthday card coming when it wasn’t my birthday is so special.   First of all, I didn’t expect it.  But how good it is to read, in her own shaky handwriting, how thankful she is for what I have done for her, and how much she loves me.  How good it is, because I know it comes from her heart.  And how much I love her, too, and how much that love has deepened as I’ve learned more about her struggles and “the system” she lives in as an elderly disabled woman on Medicaid.  

The same week I got Jan’s birthday card, I got an email message from another friend, informing me that if I wanted to keep in touch with her I would have to do it through facebook.  She doesn’t have time to write personal emails.  That’s sad for me because I don’t consider facebook “friends” real friends.  As another of my friends says, “Friendship means showing up.”  And if you can’t show up with even a phone call or email or letter or postcard once in a while, then we are acquaintances, even fond acquaintances.  But I’ll save the word “friend” for those I know love me, and care about me, and know me because they have taken the time to “show up” in my life.

Copyright 2016 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.