When my 86-year-old father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in early 2011, he was living in northern Florida, and my husband, son and I were working and studying in Lima, Peru. We didn’t have money to put my father in a dementia-care facility, and we knew he needed more than a few hours daily of at-home nursing care. My dad, like everyone with Alzheimer’s, needed help with everything from bathing, to making meals, to remembering to take his medications. Short of moving back to the States without employment there, what could we do, we wondered?
The answer, it turned out, was right in front of our noses: Lima’s plentiful supply of professional home-health aides.
We had seen these young women in white or blue scrubs escorting elderly Limeños through the neighborhood parks—holding their hand as they walked slowly along the sidewalk or pushing them in wheelchairs. We’d also known two of these health aides personally. They had cared for my sister-in-law’s very sick mother for two years in her house. What had always struck me about the aides, or enfermeras técnicas [technical nurses], as they are called, was their patience, attentiveness, and positive outlook. They didn’t rush their patients, they didn’t ignore them to look at their cell phones; they did what had to be done—present, in the moment—and with kindness and good humor.
It clicked in our heads then: These aides would be perfect for caring for an Alzheimer’s patient. Even if they didn’t speak his language.
Cut to the chase: We moved my father to Lima, installed him in a room in the back of our house, and hired two licensed health aides to care for him 24/7.
That was March 2011. Cost for his round-the-clock care? US$670 per month for both aides, plus three meals a day. The two aides rotated shifts.
In future posts, I’ll explain how we found these aides and the legalities of hiring (and firing) domestic workers, as they are considered, in Peru. The important thing is that because my husband knew the city and the culture and spoke Spanish (he was born in Peru), it was easy for us to find excellent help and to arrange a good set-up for my father. We went through a personnel service that my sister-in-law had used, and it ensured that the aides were well trained and licensed, and had passed background and police checks. We had to go through a few ETs until we got the right fit for my dad, but within two months, we had found the ideal aides.
That’s my dad, above, with his enfermera tecnica Erika. Every afternoon they went for a walk in the park, or if he wasn’t up to it, for a ride in a wheelchair. My husband used to say that she had the patience of a saint.
The affordability of at-home care in Lima meant that my father was never alone as he battled Alzheimer’s. These caring, capable women helped him in the tasks of daily living and stayed calm and upbeat in difficult situations that had me tearing my hair out. It was brutal seeing my dad go on a hunger strike, as he did when he first came to Lima, and watching him succumb to hallucinations. I was overwhelmed witnessing my father’s suffering, but the health aides had seen it all. They knew that it was going to get better (with the doctor’s help), and they stayed strong in their faith.
His health aides not only saved him—they saved me and my family.
We were more fortunate than many caregivers in the United States, who have to hold down jobs and must patch together care strategies with hourly sitters and/or family members taking turns. My husband and I still spent many hours caring for my father in Lima, but we had the necessary luxury of being able to go up to our room at 10 p.m., shut the door, and sleep through the night without worries. The aides prevented him from wandering all over at 2 a.m. Just that fact alone let us keep a better grip on our sanity.
If there is one thing that caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients need, it’s this: Reliable, experienced help in overseeing the daily tasks of living. Alzheimer’s robs a person of the ability to do even the simplest of things—getting dressed, reading a book, remembering where one’s house is. Until there is a cure for this brutal disease, at-home help should be an affordable option for all Alzheimer’s patients, not just the very rich. Long-term care should be a right for all Americans.
My dad lived just a year and a half after his diagnosis. But that period was filled with caring and compassion. We have his health aides to thank for making those months—his Peruvian Alzheimer’s Adventure–a positive last chapter in his life.