Former Carbondale man’s long-distance eldercare needs calls attention to serious issue
Care facilities, hospice see isolation on different levels
When Carbondale resident Michael White learned his good friend and longtime local accountant Joe Donovan needed assistance after a cancer diagnosis last year, he and some others in the community were happy to help.
Complicating matters, though, was the fact that Donovan had moved from Carbondale to Las Vegas about five years ago.
And, he had outlived all of his immediate family, so there was no one close at hand to serve as caregiver.
To help out, White has been in regular phone communication with Donovan, who’s now 76 and in an assisted living home. He has also made the trip to Las Vegas to visit Donovan in-person a half dozen times since last August.
“My heart goes out to him, especially because of the tremendous losses he has experienced in the past 14 years,” White said.
Joe and Genie Donovan lost their daughter, Christian, to breast cancer in 2007. Her twin brother, Craig, also died tragically, and three years ago Joe lost his wife to a blood infection.
A sister, as well as a close friend who prompted the Donovans to move to Las Vegas, have also since passed, leaving Joe essentially alone, White said.
After the stage IV prostate cancer diagnosis came in July 2020, the medical bills started mounting. In addition to regular visits and phone conversations, White also set up a GoFundMe page to help defray some of the expenses.
Aging in isolation
But the predicament shows the challenges of elder care or terminal care needs when people outlive their immediate family, have lost touch with extended family, or even if they live far away from family.
Limitations on travel and public health restrictions at nursing homes and assisted or independent living facilities this past year due to COVID-19 have made things even more difficult.
That’s especially true for those diagnosed with a terminal illness or who are otherwise at the end of their life.
The hospice nurses and support team at Home Care and Hospice of the Valley deal with those situations on a regular basis, said Sylvia Allais, executive director for the organization.
“We see it quite a bit with people in isolation, especially here in the areas we cover,” Allais said. “A lot of people either don’t have direct family present, or in some cases they’ve lost contact with their family. I don’t think it’s uncommon at all.”
That isolation is not only difficult emotionally — it can complicate matters in terms of end-of-life planning, when patients aren’t able to make their own decisions any longer and there’s no one designated as power of attorney, she said.
“It can be very helpful where friends are involved and willing to help,” she said. “We do see that with end-of-life issues when there isn’t a family member available to do those things.”
Garfield County’s population of retirement-age residents (65 and up) is about 13.8% of the total population of roughly 60,000, based on the most recent U.S. Census estimate from July 2019.
Some of the older residents who end up in hospice, or maybe residing in a nearby assisted living facility or nursing home, had at some point relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley for a job and later retired, or maybe decided to retire here after a career.
Others have lived here much of their life, maybe even raised a family here, but their children and families live elsewhere.
And, in some cases, people can’t afford to live here any longer even if they do have family close by.
One Post Independent reader who responded to a question posed in the new Riverside Chat weekend newsletter — “What challenges and accomplishments have you personally encountered when caring for an elderly friend or family member over the past year?” — spoke to the latter dilemma.
“I am an elder having lived here for 30+ years, and there are lots of us,” the reader wrote. “We are being forced out of our homes even though we worked all our lives.”
Some senior citizens have funds to live on. Others, not so much, she continued.
When those residents look to downsize and get out of a larger home that once accommodated a big family, the options to stay in the Valley are few for those on a fixed income, she noted.
“Our homes are worth something, of course, but where do we go?
“Being old here is not very simple or very fun, and certainly not safe. There is a lot of struggling going on, and that struggle is invisible to the community.”
Skilled care families
When family is gone, or just can’t be present on a regular basis, those who reside in long-term care facilities can find family among their skilled caregivers.
“We do see it from time to time where people just can’t be there,” said Chavien Paget, administrator at Grand River Health Care Center in Rifle. “Some families come in and apologize for being overly involved, to which I say, ‘don’t apologize, we want you to be involved.’
“But not everyone can do that on a consistent basis,” he said.
Though not a problem the Rifle facility has seen, Paget acknowledged the sad situations where someone will drop off a family member at a nursing home and rarely, if ever, pay a visit again.
“Here, we are very lucky to have good family involvement,” he said.
And, when family can’t be close at hand, the nursing home staff becomes that family for its residents, said Paul Rice, director of person-centered care at the Rifle Care Center.
“COVID certainly didn’t help any this past year, but my job is to engage people and get them involved,” Rice said. “It’s also to let them know that we care as much about them as their loved ones who can’t be there.”
With restrictions on visitations this past year due to the pandemic, the care team became adept at facilitating visits via Zoom or Facetime, as well as window visits — and not just from people.
Grand River also arranged with the Riding Institute for Disabled Equestrians (RIDE) in Silt to bring horses and other farm animals by for occasional window visits.
Paget recalled one resident who was starting to decline during the restrictions, and they were able to arrange an in-person visit with family.
“In just two or three weeks, we saw a complete change in that individual, and they were suddenly thriving again,” he said. “That’s testimony to the effect those family visits can have.”
‘Team’ is important in elder care
When someone enters hospice care and the family or friends can’t always be present, Allais said they will try to connect them with resources that can help ease the burden.
“As caregivers, we try to encourage people to go in as an entire team,” she said. “At the same time, we look at how we can serve them where they are, as they are available.”
White said he’s committed to helping Donovan for the long haul, but he wishes he could do more.
“It’s a real ordeal, because in his current condition the only way he can get to doctor appointments, or any kind of appointment, is medical transport that comes and picks him up,” White said. “They take him to the oncologist, and even to get his COVID vaccine.”
White was able to be there and accompany Donovan during his last oncologist visit. The prognosis is good, all things considered, and with treatment and physical therapy he has some time left.
“With all that’s happened to him in life, though, I desperately want to get him the care that will help him,” he said.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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