Each industry has their own way of showing off their accomplishments to the world. The armed forces gives out medals, the music industry gives out Grammys. Affordable housing has victories, but often, the stories do not wrap up into a pretty little package, which makes it harder to show others the pride we have in our work.
To look at Howard, the average person would not be impressed. Howard’s story is fraught with ups and downs, and yet it is for this very reason that he personifies a great accomplishment. He was often dirty. His fingers were deeply stained by nicotine and he looked like he had not changed or showered in several days. When he smelled bad we had to ask him to go back to his apartment and clean up. He did not like wearing his hearing aids or his dentures, and so it was sometimes hard to be understood or to understand what he was saying.
In elder care, we see some people whose limitations are new and we see some who were limited all their lives. Howard was one who had clearly always struggled. He had held a series of menial jobs, but did get by until people started taking advantage of his big heart. That is when we found him.
Howard came to us from a shelter. Because of his developmental delays, he was an easy target for people who wanted money or cigarettes. He roamed the city going to different soup kitchens to feed himself. Finally, his sister applied for housing on his behalf. But, his struggles were not over. Like vultures, the people who preyed on him before now tried to help themselves to his new apartment. Family and staff worked together and with extra support, he learned his obligations as a tenant, minimized the visitors and avoided eviction. He was further stabilized by the meals program where he was guaranteed two meals a day. With help, he has accessed food stamps, medical care, transportation options and other services to keep him strong and healthy until the end. Staff even got him to quit smoking for some time!
Despite himself, Howard became an integral member of the community. Although staff affectionately called him the “town crier” for his help in spreading news, he did ultimately weasel his way into our hearts. He would make the rounds most mornings, bringing the daily update and a “good morning” to each person in turn. He tried to help when he could. He delivered trays to people who were sick in the building and even helped out at the local soup kitchen. He seemed to thrive on the guidance offered by all staff – he must have understood that our “suggestions” were well intended, even if they were sometimes hard to hear. He never took offense when we needed to correct him.
Howard died this past week. We knew it was coming. But somehow, I am still shocked at the hole he has left. Howard was a pillar of our community. It is hard to express how important he was, especially when you can only seem to describe his flaws. He may not have come far in life, but his success is our success and we are proud to have made a difference in his life. Without stable housing and services, Howard would certainly have stayed homeless, died sooner, or ended up in a nursing home. More importantly, he would not have found a community that accepted him and cared for him. And in the end, isn’t that the ultimate rags to riches story? He mattered. He was loved. He will be missed. We should all be so lucky.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or [email protected] and www.colonyretirementhomes.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com