It’s a good day when Frank Lee, a retired chef, can slip out to the hardware store, fairly confident that his wife, Robin, is in the hands of reliable help. He spends nearly every hour of every day anxiously overseeing her care at their home on the Isle of Palms, a barrier island near Charleston, South Carolina.
Robin Lee, 67, has had dementia for about a decade, but the couple was able to take overseas trips and enjoy their marriage of some 40 years until three years ago, when she grew more agitated, prone to sudden outbursts, and could no longer explain what she needed or wanted. He struggled to care for her largely on his own.
“As Mom’s condition got more difficult to navigate, he was just handling it,” said Jesse Lee, the youngest of the couple’s three adult children. “It was getting harder and harder. Something had to change, or they would both perish.”
Frank Lee’s search for trustworthy home health aides — an experience that millions of American families face — has often been exhausting and infuriating, but he has persisted. He didn’t entirely trust the care his wife would get in an assisted living facility. Last August, when a respite program paid for her brief stay in one so Frank, 69, could take a trip to the mountains, she fell and fractured her sacrum, the bone that connects the spine to the pelvis.
There is precious little assistance from the government for families who need a home health aide, unless they are poor. The people working in these jobs are often woefully underpaid and unprepared to help a frail, older person with dementia bathe and use the bathroom, or to defuse an angry outburst.
Usually, it is family that steps into the breach — grown children who cobble together a fragile chain of visitors to help an ailing father; a middle-aged daughter who returns to her childhood bedroom; a son-in-law working from home who keeps a watchful eye on a confused parent; a wife who can barely manage herself looking after a faltering husband.
Frank Lee finally found two aides on his own, with no help from an agency. Using the proceeds from the sale of his stake in a group of restaurants, including the popular Charleston bistro Slightly North of Broad, he pays them the going rate of about $30 an hour. Between his wife’s care and medical expenses, he estimates he’s spending between $80,000 and $100,000 a year.
“Who the hell can afford this?” he asked. “There’s no relief for families unless they have great wealth or see their wealth sucked away.” He worries that he will run out of money and be forced to sell their home of more than three decades. “Funds aren’t unlimited,” he said.
Credited with emphasizing local ingredients and mentoring young chefs in Charleston, Lee retired in 2016, a few years after his wife’s diagnosis.
In an interview at the time, he said, “My wife has given up her life to help me in my career, and now I need to pay attention to her.”
©2023 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.