This image contains: me, smiling.

Senior Companion

By Abbie Johnson Taylor

 

 

After making sure I had the right address, I parked my car in front of the white house with green trim. I spotted a wheelchair accessible van in the driveway and a gray station wagon in the garage. For the umpteen millionth time, I studied the information I’d been given about this guy.

Mark Fisher was nearly seventy years old. He’d suffered a stroke several years earlier and was confined to a wheelchair. He and his wife got help with his personal care and house cleaning from the senior center’s home health care program, but they never went out. I looked again at the wheelchair accessible van. Maybe it no longer worked, and they couldn’t afford to fix it.

I’d been a mechanic before going into law enforcement. I could probably fix the engine, I thought, as I climbed out of my car and locked my driver’s side door. It wasn’t too hot, and there was a nice breeze, but it may as well have been over 100 degrees, as evidenced by the sweat trickling down my back. I wished I’d told my wife what she could do with her idea of me volunteering as a senior companion now that I was retired with nothing else to do.

She still worked as the senior center’s volunteer coordinator. I still loved her and still wanted to please her. So, with trepidation, I made my way up the walk to the front door.

A newspaper lay at the bottom of the steps. The front door opened a crack, and I glimpsed a woman’s face peering at me with a weary expression. I smiled and said, “Hi, you must be Terry, Mark’s wife.”

She opened the door a little farther and gave me a weak smile. “Yeah, you must be Dennis McGuire.”

“In the flesh,” I said with a wave.

As I picked up the paper, a smile of relief crossed her face, and she said, “Oh, thank you so much. Our paper boy can’t throw a newspaper to save his soul, or maybe he does this just to spite me. Who knows?”

I thought this sounded strange but said, “Well, I was a paper boy once, and I didn’t have very good aim, either.”

Then, eyeing the overflowing box next to the steps, I asked, “Want me to grab the mail?”

“Please,” she answered, again looking relieved.

I retrieved a bunch of letters and junk and followed her inside. She quickly closed the door and took the newspaper and mail. “I’ll just put these in my office,” she said before hurrying into an adjoining room.

I found myself in a small living room. A television was tuned to a baseball game, and Mark sat in his  wheelchair nearby. Terry appeared in her office doorway. She wore jeans and a t-shirt, and I couldn’t help noticing the long, uneven, dark strands of hair that fell in waves down her back. Mark was also wearing jeans and a t-shirt. His gray hair also looked a bit scraggly, but he was clean-shaven and otherwise well-kempt.

I smiled at him and was relieved to see that he, unlike his wife, wasn’t scared of me. He grinned and extended his hand. “Hey, Dennis.”

“How you doing, buddy?” I said, walking up to him and shaking his hand.

“Great! But the Rockies are losing again. They’re rotten to the core.”

“That’s too bad. They made it to the play-offs for the World Series last year.”

“Yeah, but they must have let it go to their heads or something because they did pretty bad after that. They didn’t even come close to winning the World Series.”

“Well, maybe they’ll do better this year.”

Terry cleared her throat. “I put Mark in his wheelchair because he would like to visit with you outside. Would you mind taking him out?”

I looked uncertainly at the door through which I’d come. “Uh, I’m not sure how I’ll get him through there and down those steps.”

“Oh, no,” she said, blushing. “You can go out the kitchen door. There’s a ramp.”

“Honey,” Mark said. “Get my radio, so I can hear the game.”

“Oh, you silly goofball.” Terry laughed, as she ruffled his hair, and he grinned.

To me, she said, “It’s the bottom of the seventh inning, and the Rockies are way behind. There’s no chance they’ll win now, but he’s faithful to the end.”

“It’s not a problem,” I assured her. “Hope springs eternal, right, buddy?”

“Yep,” Mark answered with another grin.

He switched off the television with a remote control he held in his hand, then laid it on the table next to him. Terry retrieved a transistor radio from another nearby table and handed it to him. He found the station broadcasting the game.

I grasped the handles of his chair and followed Terry into a spacious kitchen. She opened another door, and I spotted a ramp that led to the driveway. “The gate to get into the yard is around back. Mark can show you.”

Looking hesitant, she added, “I can get drinks ready for you, but would you mind coming back and getting them?”

“Honey, we’ll just be outside this other door,” Mark said, pointing to a separate door at the other end of the room that I assumed led out to the yard but had no ramp.

Terry turned white as a sheet and grasped the handle of the nearby refrigerator door for support. “Mark, you know I can’t do that.”

Mark gave an exasperated sigh. Not knowing what to think, I put a hand on his shoulder and said, “It’s okay, buddy. I’ll park you out there, then come back and get the drinks.”

I turned to Terry, who looked like she was about to pass out. “Why don’t you sit down and rest? I’ll come back and make our drinks once I get him settled, okay?”

Shakily, she made her way to a nearby chair and flopped into it. “I’m so sorry,” she said, her whole body trembling. “There are just some things I can’t do anymore, like Mark can’t walk or dress himself or take himself to the bathroom anymore.”

“It’s not a problem,” I said. I was tempted to put a hand on her shoulder but thought better of it. “I’ll be right back.”

I wheeled Mark out the door, pulling it closed behind us, then down the ramp and around to the back of the house, where we entered a cement patio. Mark directed me to park him next to a picnic table in the shade of an oak tree. “This feels so good,” he said. “I haven’t been outside in a long time.”

This was odd, I thought, but I forged ahead. “What would you like to drink?”

“A beer, straight out of the can.”

“Coming right up,” I said.

Pointing to a nearby door, I asked, “Can I get back in the house this way?”

“You bet! That’ll take you through our back porch and up two steps into the kitchen.”

Inside, I found Terry still sitting where I’d left her. She wasn’t shaking any longer, and some color had returned to her cheeks. With a weak smile, she said, “There’s a case of Coors in the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. There’s also a pitcher of lemonade if you’d rather have that.”

I smiled back at her. “No, beer is fine for me, too.”

To reassure her, I added, “I’ll only have one, so I’ll be able to drive home later.”

Looking relieved, she said, “Thank you again so much.”

Out in the yard, I put our beer cans on the picnic table and sat on the bench facing Mark. “Would you mind opening this?” he asked. “I can only use one hand. My stroke, you know.”

“Oh, sure,” I said, picking up his can and flipping the tab. Not realizing that a stroke might have made this task nearly impossible, I blushed.

Mark took a swig of his beer. “You must have been a bartender.”

“Yep,” I said, opening my own can and taking a swig. I was a bartender, then a mechanic, and then finally, I decided to become a policeman.”

“Wow! How long were you on the force?”

“For about forty years. I finally retired a few months ago.”

“Wow!” he said again, then belched.

“How about you?” I asked.

“Well, I majored in IT in college, then decided to open a computer store. I ran it for years but had to retire when I had my stroke.”

“That’s too bad,” I said. Then, it was my turn to belch.

I wanted to ask him about his wife but didn’t think that was a good idea.

He must have read my mind, for he said, “Terry has agoraphobia. It’s a fear of being out in public. She can’t even go out and get the mail or newspaper, let alone take me out in this yard.”

Now, it was my turn to say, “Wow!”

“Yeah, it started a few months ago. She was at the beauty shop one day when she had a panic attack. She got all sweaty and shaky, and she had trouble breathing. She somehow managed to get to her car and drive home, but she told me she couldn’t go out anymore, and she doesn’t, not even to her exercise classes at the Y, which she loves.”

“Oh, brother,” I said, now realizing why he hadn’t been outside in quite a while.

“We now get our groceries delivered, and we even get food from Schwan. She cuts her own hair and sometimes mine, but she doesn’t do a very good job.” He fingered his unruly locks and blushed.

I smiled to reassure him. “Buddy, in my years on the force, I’ve seen a lot worse. But isn’t there anything to be done about your wife’s condition?”

“She won’t see a doctor. That’s the funny thing because she used to be a nurse. She had to quit after I had my stroke and we realized I probably wouldn’t walk again. She makes some money doing freelance writing, and we get monthly disability checks from Social Security, but that’s it.”

I looked around at the green lawn and wanted to ask who mowed it, since neither Mark or Terry could. As if reading my thoughts, Mark said, “The senior center has a chore service that shovels our walks in the winter and mows our lawn in the summer. They do a pretty good job and charge us according to the income we make. I qualify for Medicaid, which covers in home health care services. So, we get along okay, financially, that is.”

“That’s good, but don’t you have any family or friends who could help?”

“My son and daughter are both married and have moved away. They have their own lives. My daughter will be coming next month with the grandkids, but my son hasn’t kept in touch much since the stroke. I guess he’s not sure how to deal with that and now his mother’s condition. Most of my friends haven’t kept in touch, either.”

We finished our beers in silence, punctuated by a belch now and then, while the game droned on. Finally, Mark reached over to where he’d lain his radio on the picnic table and switched it off. “Terry’s right. They’re not gonna win, at least not this game.”

“Well, there’s always tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah.” He smiled. “They’ll do better tomorrow.”

“By the way, does your wheelchair van still work?”

“Yeah, but we haven’t taken it anywhere in months. You know Terry…” His voice trailed off.

“Well, I can drive. So, why don’t we go, um, maybe to the barbershop, that is, if you really want a haircut.”

He grinned. “Is the Pope Catholic? I know just the place. Hank’s is on Main Street, right across the street from Wally’s Bar and Grill. Terry used to take me to both places. So, we should be able to get my chair in both of them.”

“That’s funny. I never pictured Terry as a drinker. But maybe that was before.”

“No, she’s always been more partial to Dr. Pepper than beer.”

I laughed, then, on impulse, reached over and slapped him on the back. “I’m also a Pepper. Since I’m the designated driver, that’s what I’ll be drinking.”

I stood and picked up our empty cans. “Where can I dispose of these and get the keys to the van?”

“There’s a trash can we use for recycling in Terry’s office next to the living room. She’s probably there now. She keeps the keys in the top drawer of her desk.”

“Okay.”

“It may take some convincing to get her to hand them over. I read in an article online that agoraphobia also causes separation anxiety. That’s why she won’t go and see a doctor or go anywhere else for that matter.”

“It sounds like I have my work cut out for me, but I’m up for a challenge.”

“Good luck.”

After rinsing the cans in the kitchen sink, I found Terry in her office, typing on a computer. A nearby radio was tuned to an oldies station. When I walked in, she stopped and pointed to a can underneath her desk. “You can toss those in there. Thanks. I suppose Mark wants another.”

“Nope,” I said, flinging the cans into the receptacle with a loud clatter. “I need the keys to the van. Mark wants a haircut.”

Her face turned pale, and she gripped the arms of her office chair. I waited, giving her space. Finally, she regained her composure and said, “Of course. I’m not the best of barbers.”

Her hand shook, as she reached into her desk drawer and retrieved the keys. As I took them, I squeezed her trembling hand. Then, I bent to her level and looked deep into her blue eyes, still wide with fear. “Look, I used to be a cop. If you don’t believe me, you can call the station and ask if a Dennis McGuire used to be on the force.”

She smiled. “I’ve seen your name in the paper associated with a case or two.”

“Well,” I said, standing up to my full height. “I’m sure you realize now that Mark will be safe with me. I promise I won’t drink any more beer at Wally’s, and I’ll get him back here safe and sound.”

“I know. I just can’t shake this fear, but I’m going to try, for Mark’s sake. He loves getting out.”

“Of course he does.”

Her cell phone pinged. “Oh, excuse me. That’s probably from Mark. He loves to text me, even though it takes him longer with just one hand, and he won’t use Siri.”

She picked up her phone and smiled as she read what was on the screen. “He says you like Dr. Pepper, and would I please add it to our grocery list?”

I laughed. “I understand you like it, too, and I didn’t see any in the fridge earlier. We could pick some up for you on our way home.”

“Oh, no, that won’t be necessary. We’re expecting a grocery delivery tomorrow. I can hang on till then. Thanks, anyway.”

“You’re welcome. By the way, you know you can always call Mark on his cell if you get anxious, and I’ll give you my number in case, for some reason, you can’t reach him.”

“Okay,” she said, handing me a sticky note from her desk.

After I scribbled my number and handed it to her, she did something I didn’t expect. She stood and hugged me. “Oh, Dennis, you are such a godsend. I don’t know what I would have done if the senior companion coordinator told me she didn’t have any men.”

Then, she opened another desk drawer and handed me a wallet. “This is Mark’s. There should be more than enough cash in there to cover the barber and the bar.” She winked.

“If not, I’ll take care of it,” I said, pocketing the billfold. “Thanks.”

On the radio, Bonnie Tyler was singing “Holding Out for a Hero.” Terry said, “You’re our hero.”

“No problem,” I said, blushing.

Outside, with Mark’s direction, it didn’t take me long to figure out how to use the van’s lift. As I was getting ready to load him, I noticed Terry looking out the kitchen window. Standing on the lift next to Mark’s chair, I gave her a thumbs-up, then said to Mark, “Okay, buddy, up we go.” I pressed the button to lift the wheelchair into the van.

After securing the chair to the floor and buckling Mark in, I jumped out and closed the door. Terry was still at the window. I gave her another thumbs-up before walking around to the driver’s side, climbing in, fastening my own seatbelt, and starting the engine. I was relieved it still ran, even though it hadn’t been used in months.

As I backed out of the driveway, Mark said, “Ah, now, this is the life.”

“You bet, pal!” I said, as I drove away. I was now glad my wife had insisted I volunteer as a senior companion.

Although, at least in this country, things are slowly returning to normal, a lot of older adults are still isolated. Many senior centers offer companion programs that match older adults with others who are shut in and want social interaction. If you’d like to help such a person or if you or someone you know might benefit from a companion, please contact your local senior center.

Note: The above short story can also be read on my blog here as part of a weekly feature called Open Book Blog Hop.