You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere


You’ve gotta start somewhere with a new project, and this is how I’m starting the brand new ElderLife blog. I decided that it would be fitting to begin with a story about the person who got me headed down this path and that would be my Aunt Carolyn.

Aunt Carolyn is quite the character. And considering that she has survived on this earth for 107 years and counting, she has earned the right to be any kind of character that she chooses. She was born on January 20, 1907 in Connecticut, but soon moved with her family to Holyoke, MA. As the eldest daughter of Sicilian immigrants, she found out early what it was like to work hard. She had to learn English and teach it to the ever-growing brood of siblings that she looked after. She cleaned, did errands and kept up with her own school work.  Life was never slow or dull around the Deni household.

Somewhere during the late 1950s, she moved to Manhattan and took up residence at 5 Tudor City Place, on the east side, right down the street from the United Nations. She had a grand view of the East River from the window of her studio apartment on the 23rd floor. And there she stayed living and working for many years to come. She never married, never had children and never left home without a proper hat. She has become a true New York career woman, once removed, yet still connected, to her family back home.

Flash forward to 2006. I got a call from a cousin in Massachusetts, asking if I could go and check on Aunt Carolyn. She’d fallen on her way to the bathroom one night, and had laid there undiscovered until the doorman noticed he hadn’t seen her come down for her mail in a few days. She was 99 years old at the time. You can guess where this story is heading, can’t you?

The address my cousin had given me led me to a high-rise nursing home on the Upper East Side. The conditions there dovetailed nicely with my worst fears for my own old age. I found my aunt, almost unrecognizable, sitting in a lineup of wheelchairs in the hallway on one of the upper floors. The independent spirit I had known as Aunt Carolyn was gone, replaced with a limp rag doll of a demented old woman.

Adding to the shock of her decline was the realization that staff at the nursing home were eying me with suspicion. Who was I? What was I looking for? I was asking a lot of questions and getting nowhere. Aunt Carolyn had been so good at maintaining her independence that she never saw the need to sign a durable power of attorney form or a health care proxy while she was cognitively able. And now, that boat had sailed. Guardianship was the only option left on the table.

More than eight months later – and that was eight months with no access to any of my aunt’s apartment or personal effects – I was named as legal guardian of the person and property for my aunt by the Supreme Court of the County of Manhattan. It was an unpleasant and anxiety-filled process, conducted by lawyers and a judge who had never known my aunt in her better days. They never knew my aunt at all.

After leaving court that day, I realized that there could be many more Aunt Carolyns out there, stubborn about remaining autonomous in their affairs to their ultimate detriment. I thought about how hard it had been to educate myself in just a few of the details of my new caregiving role. And I decided that maybe I could help others avoid the problems my family had just experienced.

So I took some time to acquire some new skills and a new working vocabulary. I was very fortunate to be able to join the practice of a well-established financial planner. Our initial idea was that we would work with Baby Boomer clients who had older relatives and who wanted to create a plan for eldercare, pre-need.

And while this was a noble idea, we quickly found out that pretty much no one wants to talk about unpleasant topics like death and loosing you mind until they absolutely have to do so. I’m still trying to figure out how to make an unsavory topic more palatable. Meanwhile, more than seven years after I started down this path, I’ve started writing about what I do and what I think the future of caring for our elders might look like.

I hope you’ll check in from time to time to see what I’ve got to say. I’ll be posting a new blog entry every few weeks. And while I’ll be the first to tell you that talking about old age and death is difficult, we’ve all really gotta start somewhere.



Blog By Holly Deni