The forgotten: Reaching out during the holiday season — and throughout the year — gives life meaning
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 1 in 6 children have some developmental disability. That includes mild through severe challenges across many different types, from autism to intellectual disability. It's easier to count children because they are provided educational services; adults live with relatives or in group homes, institutions, private placements or, like these two, on their own. For that reason, the estimates are unreliable, but all agree adults with these disabilities live in neighborhoods all across America. Sometimes, they're overlooked.
Years after he and his wife and her brother started their own home health care business in Hackensack, N.J., Lenny Verkhoglaz is still stunned by how many of the Executive Homecare clients have no one of their own to care for them.
Some have children who live far away, while others have no children. Many have outlived their kids, said his wife, Mila Feldman. The aides hired to come in become the family they don't have. And during the holidays, those aides are tasked with making the season more special. So they put up little trees or arrange a gift exchange. They dress their clients in festive clothing and try to make the season special, she said.
Gifts needn't be extravagant, says Amanda Gois of St. Paul's PACE in San Diego. The group helps 270 of the area's elderly stay in their own homes, providing transportation, meals and socialization.
She estimates as many as 45 percent of their clients don't have any family in town to provide a support system or just visit. If there's a birthday, it falls on the program to provide the celebration.
They are in the middle of their seasonal gift drive, asking for sundries, clothing, slippers — something small so everyone gets a gift. Some of the best she's seen have been gifts of time and service. "If you have no family around, you absolutely need the kindness of others," she said. Offering to do a small bit of gardening or a load of laundry doesn't take much, but those are very challenging for seniors, she noted.
It is rare if a neighborhood doesn't include some of the nation's 40.4 million who are older than 65. Those who reach age 65 live an average of 18.8 years beyond it, according to the Administration on Aging. And nearly 30 percent of them live alone.
A patient man
Some of his neighbors in Idaho Falls may not know Kurt Denning lives nearby. Life has made him, at 52, somewhat reclusive. Seventeen years ago, a brain aneurysm put him in a coma. When he woke up three months later, he went to rehab, then to live with his parents as he'd done half a lifetime before. He has outlived both of them.
Most days, life is routine. An aide gets him up and dressed and makes breakfast, then leaves. Denning spends much of his time with audio books — he just finished "War and Peace" — or on his computer. He is nearly blind in one eye and his left hand won't cooperate, so he does everything with his right, which is more time-consuming than he'd like. Patience is a virtue that has been forced upon him. The same aide returns later and helps him prepare for bed. It's easy to forget holidays in the sameness of his routine.
It's hard to say precisely how unique his situation is, because so many different medical conditions and circumstances, including age, can make it hard for someone to get out into the community. Denning's community must, for the most part, come to him. And it does.
His older brother, Bryce, visits often and if Denning needs to go to a doctor, they schedule it for Friday so he can take him. He is also blessed, he said, with a couple of very dedicated friends who stop by often.
It is people, reaching out, who give life meaning.
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