It looked as if Barbara and Harry Cooper were nearing the end of the line. Still residing in Ventura County about an hour away from Los Angeles where their surviving family members lived, the aging couple were in failing health but resistant to making a change. The logical people to turn to were glaringly absent: In 2007, both their son and their daughter had died suddenly within a few months of each other.
In the end, it would fall to two of the Coopers’ grandchildren, Kim and Chinta, to take charge. These two skip-generation caregivers would have to figure everything out without a script. And, to complicate things, their grandparents insisted they were fine and didn’t need help.
At 43, Kim is the oldest of the grandchildren. Long the most pragmatic member of the family, she’d been urging her dad, Jan, to do something about his parents’ living situation for 10 years. Unfortunately Jan was a bit of a dreamer and a wanderer—not really the type to take responsibility for anything. When Kim was a little girl, he’d bought an old bread truck and the family lived in it while they drove up and down the California coast. A few years later, when Kim was 11, Jan decided he would like to sail around the world. A sensible person even then, Kim declined.
Over the years when Kim would press Jan to do something about his aging parents, he would throw up his hands as if the entire issue were beyond his ken. “He’d say, ‘No, no. I just can’t deal with that right now,’” Kim recalls.
Ironically Jan started to come around not long before he passed away. “Dad was finally going to take the mantle of the responsible son, to be a mensch. He’d actually made an appointment to take his parents to visit an assisted care facility.”
He would die the day before their scheduled appointment.
Jan’s sister Carol (Kim and Chinta’s aunt) would also pass away that same year. She had cancer, but had not told anyone in the family about it. “She was trying to use nontraditional methods. We didn’t even know she was sick until she was in hospice,” says Kim.
So, in 2007, Barbara and Harry, ages 90 and 95, were suddenly childless and without anyone in a position of responsibility. “This situation might not be so difficult for families that are on the same page,” says Kim. But theirs, in a word, wasn’t. She and Chinta, 21, had different mothers. They had never been close. “We were just too far flung,” she says.
Still, something had to be done about the grandparents. An elderly couple with no strong family member watching over them can easily become targets for con artists and freeloaders. And now the vultures were circling.
These vultures came in the form of a young man and woman who had been enlisted to do odd jobs for Barbara and Harry, but whose motives seemed questionable. The man was supposed to drive them around and help with errands. The grandparents trusted him, but the grandchildren soon discovered he was a heavy drinker. The woman was hired as a housekeeper and all-around helper. At one point, she decided she would paint the inside of their house—even though she wasn’t a painter—and she took Harry to the bank to withdraw thousands of dollars for the work.
A few years earlier, the Coopers had also been victimized by another woman, a suspected meth user, who would “help out” around the house informally, but was always asking for loans to get her out of various jams. “Her last hurrah was to get grandpa to pay for her to rent a U-Haul truck to move her stuff out because he was being evicted,” recalls Kim. “She never returned the truck and the meter kept ticking on the rental until the storage unit called U-Haul to report the truck had been abandoned.”
It was Chinta who acted. Then 21, Chinta was in college in San Diego. Born of a different mother than Kim, she was too far apart in age to be really close. She’d started visiting her grandparents more and more frequently. Finally, frustrated that she could never keep up with the errands that needed to be done, and concerned about their health and safety—they weren’t eating properly and she wasn’t confident they were taking their medications regularly when she wasn’t around—she quit school and moved in with them.
Her mission was not to stay longterm, but to convince them to leave their home. Not an easy task, since they’d lived there 20 years. But she felt there was no other way to separate her grandparents from the troublemakers who were preying on them. Also, she and Kim hoped to convince the couple to move closer to Los Angeles. She and her younger brothers staged a kind of intervention. They sat their grandparents down and told them how worried they were about them and how much they loved them. Then they asked them to sign a paper agreeing to move into a facility where they could be looked after properly. Barbara and Harry finally acquiesced.
It did not go well at first. Chinta and Kim left things in their grandparents’ hands and the elder couple quickly settled on a facility a few minutes away from their home. It was still a good hour away from the children. And too close to the vultures. The young “housekeeper” who’d earlier painted their old home for an outlandish price started dropping by unannounced. Deja vu all over again.
Then a small miracle occurred. At a 2008 Rosh Hashonnah (Jewish New Year) service in Los Angeles, the two sisters were talking about their dilemma and it just happened that their words were heard by another member of the congregation, the chief of nursing at Hollenbeck Palms, one of the oldest assisted-living and continued-care facilities in LA. Furthermore the facility was five minutes away from their home.
Kim and Chinta researched Hollenbeck and found it had a fine reputation—it was the object of a UCLA study looking into why its residents lived so much longer than the average.
Quickly Barbara and Harry moved to Hollenbeck.
Well, actually, Chinta had to tell them a little white lie to get them to make their first visit. “I told them we were going to tea at the Biltmore,” she says with a giggle.
The grandparents have now settled into their new home. Barbara and Harry are happy there. The staff has made them feel like family. Plus, they have their grandchildren nearby. Kim or Chinta visits every day. And the vultures are nowhere to be seen.
Barbara and Harry are thriving. With a little help from her grandchildren, grandma Barbara has become somewhat famous online at their website http:/www.the-ogs.com (short for Original Grandparents). The site has over 6000 Facebook fans and many more on Youtube where the grandchildren frequently post videos of Barbara’s advice column. (Check out her Ask Grandma Anything section.) Barbara also frequently posts restaurant reviews on Yelp—several times, she’s made Yelp’s LA “review of the day.”
In short, the grandparents are not just alive, but quite well, thank you. And all because their grandchildren stepped into the breach and took responsibility. A side benefit is that Kim and Chinta have gotten close. “We barely knew each other when this started,” says Kim.
It wasn’t easy. There was no road map. “We’re super lucky because everything just came together,” says Chinta. “It also helped that they were willing to bend a little bit after insisting they didn’t need any help.”
“I wish that we’d had guidance,” adds Kim. “Very few people our age are going through anything like this, so we didn’t know anyone to talk to about it. I’m sure we made a lot of mistakes, but in the end, we were able to figure it out.”
NOTE TO READERS: Since posting this blog, a family member emailed me with a different view on how events unfolded. All of this shows the complexity of families, particularly when they face stressful situations like end of life care.
–Steve Slon firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Slon is a writer specializing in health and aging. He is the former editor of AARP The Magazine.