When a Job Becomes a Friendship: Caregivers Keep Seniors Happy and Healthy
Agripina Castellanos, 99, and María Martínez, 65, sit inside Agripina’s apartment in Angelus Plaza, the nation’s largest affordable senior housing project located in Los Angeles. (Roberto (Bear) Guerra/KQED)
María Martínez is the main caregiver for Agripina Castellanos, who turns 100 years old this June. Castellanos lives in Los Angeles, and she's one of the elders of Angelus Plaza, the nation’s largest affordable senior housing project.
She’s also one of a growing number of older adults living in the U.S. By 2020, there will be 98 million people in the country over 65 years of age, which means that caregivers like María will become more important than ever. Caregivers help allow seniors to stay in their homes -- and in most cases, caregivers also provide something simple, yet vital: friendship.
Every day, Maria arrives at Agripina’s apartment at about 8:00 a.m. The two ladies sit and chat over breakfast, and then María helps Agripina take a shower and get dressed. Until recently, Agripina used to be able to tie her own shoes, but now María must help her with those, too. Same for cleaning the apartment and shopping for food. In a nutshell, María’s help is making it possible for Agripina to fend for herself as much as possible while she stays in her longtime home.
“I tell her, 'If you go to one of these retirement communities, they’ll keep you in a wheelchair, and you’ll go from there to your bed,'" says María. “Instead, you’re here in your own home, for as long as you want and for as long as you can.”
Agripina loves her independence and her rituals. On Fridays, she goes to the hair salon for a trim and a blowout with María by her side, who helps her push her walker toward the stylist’s chair.
The two ladies, both from Mexico, have been together now for 10 years. Yet Maria wasn’t trained for caregiving; she learned it by doing it on the job. Until she was in her mid-40s, María had been a traditional, stay-at-home housewife who raised four kids. She’d never had a paid job. Agripina has never married and has no kids. Her longtime companion, her twin sister, passed away long ago. At first, the two of them struggled to find common ground.
“She used to have a really tough personality,” says María of her client. “But little by little, she has changed. When I first started working with her, I was really afraid. When you went into her apartment, before anything, you had to go wash your hands. She’s always been extremely clean. Now, I know what she likes, how she likes to carry herself. I try to keep her home clean, but she’s also not as rigid as she was before.”
With time, Agripina has become more easygoing and María has learned to accept Agripina's quirks. In a way, their relationship has evolved into something that resembles the closeness between a mother and daughter.
“Every single day she is at home with me,” says Agripina as she waits for María to finish preparing lunch in her kitchen. “She goes home when her shift is due until the next day. But I am always confident that I’ll see her the next day, even if she’s late.”
Researchers say older adults are at an increased risk of being lonely. By the time people reach their 80s, the majority of them live on their own, like Agripina does.
As a long-term risk factor, loneliness ranks alongside obesity and alcohol abuse. According to a study from Brigham Young University, social isolation is just as likely to predict an early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Yet the opposite is also true: companionship leads to better physical health and longer lives, and caregiving in particular can have far-reaching benefits for seniors, by fending off depression and chronic health conditions such as heart disease.
María makes $11 an hour as a caregiver -- that’s only 50 cents more an hour than the minimum wage in Los Angeles -- barely a livable wage. She works eight hours a day, from Monday through Sunday.
Since her husband died of a stroke last year, María realized that she needed a new sense of purpose, and she needed to find ways to get out of the house and stay active. So she made the decision to work longer, and she's happy to spend more time in Agripina’s company than she gets paid for.
“I live relatively close to her, and every morning and every evening I give her a call,” María says. “If she doesn’t answer in the evening, I just come on over immediately. Because I wonder, what if she fell down? What if the phone isn’t working? Sometimes at 9 or 10 in the evening, outside of my shift, you’ll find me here.”
Aside from their weekly session at the hair salon, María and Agripina do something together every week, outside of María's paid working hours: Every Sunday morning, they head to Agripina’s favorite restaurant, Phillippe’s, in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
Each one of them eats a full plate of pancakes, fried eggs and potatoes. Agripina has no serious health problems, takes no medications, but religiously takes her vitamins.
“I barely go to the doctor’s,” says Agripina between taking bites. “Not unless I have something that threatens to kill me; then I’ll go to him. Otherwise, I’m looking for the good things in life, so I can stick around longer.”
When they finish their brunch, María helps Agripina get up from her chair. Slowly and with patience, she grabs her purse and takes her by the arm, as Agripina pushes her walker towards Maria's car in the parking lot.