No. 7, Home Health Aide #1 (Age 16)

Aging: Reaching the end of useful life; obsolescent

“Gross, it smells like pee in here,” I said as we stepped inside the tiny house. Mom pressed a finger to her lips to silence me, but her forceful shushing shot spit in my direction. I lurched as it hit my cheek, knocking over a lamp and—from what I could hear in the next room—waking up Charlie, the male half of the elderly couple I was there to baby-sit.

“Jesus Christ, be careful,” my mother hissed. Then in a singsong voice called out, “Yoo-hoo!” followed by a three-syllable “Hell-oh-oo!” I grabbed the fallen lamp and propped it against the wall just as Charlie came tottering around the corner with his walker. His pants were unzipped and his mouth was hanging open. That’s just great, I thought—people who talk with their mouth stuck open have difficulties forming consonants. Nothing like trying to communicate with an old fart who only uses vowels.

“Hi, Charlie!” My mother’s voice feigned affection with impressive ease. He moaned something incomprehensible and waved at my mother like he was a teen queen on a parade float. His wife, Mildred, began bleating from the living room as the woman finishing up the night shift arrived from another room to greet us. Her eyes were ringed in black half-moons and nearly all of her hair had escaped from the rubber band tangled at the nape of her neck.

“Good Lord, these two take it out of me! Charlie’s been sittin’ in his chair all morning calling out other ladies’ names and Mildred has already gone to the bathroom six times.” I looked at my Swatch and noted it was only 8:00 a.m. Six times?

“Good to know,” Mom said. “By the way, this is my daughter Sandy. She’s only sixteen but she’s a hard worker, ain’t you, Sandman?”

I forced up the corners of my mouth.

Only greed and my obsession with accumulating work hours had enticed me to take this job in Wallingford, Iowa, a microscopic town bumping borders with Estherville. It also paid $5 an hour, tax-free. Mom worked there as well, and she and I were simultaneously working at understaffed fast food establishments in Okoboji and regularly competed to see who could tally up the most hours.

“Hey, Ma, I worked 56 hours this week.”

“Oh yeah? Well I worked 72. Shirley’s mom is in the hospital with pneumonia and I got to cover her shifts!”

“Hey, Ma, that one guy Steve has a raging kidney infection and they gave me all his hours! I worked 63 this week.”

Ooooo, you beat me. I only had 61.”

So went my summers in the Heartland.

I rarely slept that summer of ’85, and times when I should have been awake I was falling asleep in mid-sentence, or while driving, or while drunken skinny-dipping. Seriously, I nearly drowned twice, though it never prevented me from once again plunging into a rough lake with a fifth of gin in my stomach. I may have had youth on my side, but these sorts of festivities wore me down. So whenever Mildred took a nap I took one also, usually sitting up, posed for any unexpected guest. Sometimes I’d drift off to sleep while making the bed or peeling apples at the kitchen table. Despite my history of lavatory catnaps I was not about to sleep on their toilet. I squatted unnaturally over the elevated oval, trying not to touch anything that might have old people juice on it.

I was usually asleep somewhere in the house when their grandson showed up—that, or I would be in the process of stealing their medication. Mom had recommended the Lasix, a diuretic used to lessen the water around Milred’s heart. She lost seven pounds overnight from a single dose and I wanted in on that kind of weight loss. As long as I wasn’t jamming my fingers down my throat, I figured it shouldn’t matter how I maintained my thinness—just so long as I did. I once tried some of Charlie’s Haldol, a sedative and sleep aid, but I really wasn’t interested in sleeping soundly, only in staying up all night and being skinny.

I wasn’t very confident with this particular round of occupational thievery. I felt paranoid all the time and thought there were cameras trained on me as I rifled through their plastic forest of prescription bottles. I practiced an ignorant reaction in the event I was found out:

“You’re kidding me. These aren’t aspirin?” I even felt I could explain the ten-dollar bills I steadily snatched from Mildred’s purse. Most of my legitimate earnings went to car payments and auto insurance, and so I pilfered for party fare.

“Oh, that money. I was going to get Mildred another book of stamps.”

Mildred was in her late 70’s, wiped out physically from the ravages of Lupus but mentally sharp as a tack. If she felt like being a pain in the ass (which was always) she asked to be taken to the bathroom over and over and over again. She could walk with a walker but needed help getting onto the toilet, a task about as easy as lifting a corpse if you’re an underfed half-drowned hung over workaholic. She also needed her food cut into roughly 50 pieces and half of what she ate became lodged in her false teeth. I had to remove the gooey dentures (with my fingers) and help her flush out lingering food particles with flat ginger ale.

Charlie was another issue altogether. Nothing could possibly make a teenager fear aging more than an old man playing cowboy with his catheter tube. You see, Charlie had to be catheterized at night, and there is no greater revulsion than putting a condom catheter on an 80-year-old man’s atrophied penis. I had to shut off the human in me and pretend someone else’s hands were attached to my arms: Okay, so now I am touching his penis. Oh. Gross. And now . . . now, I am touching his balls. Sometimes, he’d get a little excited and grunt and giggle like a schoolboy. Thinking of it now still makes me gag.

To make matters that much worse, in the middle of the night, he’d yank off the catheter and the ten yards of medical tape attaching it to his nuts and he’d swing the bulging bag of urine over his head like a lasso. Urine sprayed everywhere, creating the scene that frequently greeted me when I arrived in the morning. If the night shift person announced that Charlie was still in bed, it was code for “Charlie is covered in pee and smiling about it.”

I doubt I would have worked there beyond that summer and the following events guaranteed none of the other aides would either. Charlie had Alzheimer’s, and a few times that summer he’d hopped into his truck and driven around town. He usually ended up in a neighbor’s driveway. The day the police found him wandering ten miles from home his children took away his keys and driving privileges. He was still allowed to tinker in the garage, even though he tripped and fell more than once, scaring the be-Jesus out of the help. In late August of that year he broke an arm, and his children put him and his wife in a nursing home. Mildred said she’d just die if her kids put her in “one of those places;” and she did just that.

They buried her two months later.

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