Marilyn Daniel's Reward

Classie Morant, 104, swore that as long as she had strength, she would care for her bedridden sister, Rozzie Laney, 92. For more than 20 years, she has kept that promise.
By Paula Span
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rozzie Laney, the 91-year-old woman propped up in her hospital-style bed on this Monday afternoon, didn't respond. She'd had Alzheimer's disease for many years and no longer spoke; glaucoma and cataracts had taken her sight; she couldn't sit up without assistance. She hadn't left this little brick rowhouse in Northwest Washington, shared with her older sister, for years.

But Daniel, her longtime home-care aide, was convinced that Laney could hear her. "She knows my voice," Daniel said. So as she arranged a piece of terry cloth under Laney's chin, she kept up her quiet monologue. "Roz? Roz, let's eat."

Lunch came from a blender: Daniel had rummaged through the refrigerator and collected some cooked beans, a boiled potato and a little roast chicken, then pureed everything with a bit of water. Laney "doesn't like lumps in her mouth," Daniel explained. "You have to blend everything, or she'll spit it out."

Laney took the spoonful of mush Daniel pressed to her lips, swallowed, then opened her mouth for more. She had an appetite, but eating was a slow process; she fell asleep mid-meal. "Roz, come on," the aide coaxed, "almost done."

There was barely space, in this converted sunroom at the rear of the house, for a portable heater, for a few shelves that held linens, nightgowns and incontinence briefs, for two beds. Clarice Morant, who'd moved in more than 20 years ago to care for her baby sister, was dozing on the opposite one. A faded "Happy Birthday" bouquet still sat in the adjacent dining room, left from a family celebration a few weeks ago when Morant had turned 104.

Morant is a tiny woman, weighing less than 80 pounds, with an outsize will. She still paid the household bills, cooked up grits and sausage daily for her breakfast, baked a sweet potato pie each week. Their niece in rural Virginia and nephew in Atlanta fretted constantly about these two very elderly women living alone. Each had lost her husband decades ago, and each was childless, so even with Daniel's help, they were largely on their own. But Morant wouldn't hear of what her relatives delicately termed "other options." She wanted to stay in her home on Fourth Street NW; she wanted to keep her sister there, too.

"Move?" she said when the question arose. "No! For what?"

Staying at home, even as they grow frail or disabled, is what the great majority of seniors say they want. But "aging in place" depends on certain conditions. For the sisters, it took luck: If Clarice Morant broke a hip and became immobile, she and Laney couldn't stay here. It also took family: Their niece called daily; a goddaughter in Baltimore took Morant to doctors' appointments; their nephew flew in regularly for visits. Money definitely helped. And it took someone like Marilyn Daniel -- a major factor in keeping the sisters out of a nursing home.

After lunch, Daniel stripped the bed and changed the sheets, no simple task when the bed was occupied. She had to clamber up onto the mattress, carefully roll Laney onto her side, hold her in place with one hand while slipping the fitted sheet off with the other, then roll her onto her other side to pull off the rest of the sheet. She had to repeat the process to put on clean linens. The room was stuffy from the heater and the closed windows; a sweaty sheen formed on Daniel's face as she worked. If she botched this maneuver, or even something that looked as simple as raising her client to a seated position, she could injure her patient or herself.

Daniel is a small, sunny woman in blue scrubs, sneakers and bifocals, her hair parted in the middle and pulled into two little knots atop her head. She has a dimpled smile and a voice musical with the cadences of Trinidad, where she grew up. Energetic on the job, she's almost a senior citizen herself at age 63.

Mondays were among her longer stints. The sisters' house was her second stop; she'd already spent four hours at Mrs. H.'s house a few blocks away. A comparative youngster at 66, Mrs. H. had diabetes and hypertension; she had lost much of her vision, and she moved very slowly with a walker or cane. Daniel often accompanied her to the bank and the supermarket, via Metro's vehicles for the disabled. But Mrs. H. had fallen in the bathtub last week. "Her knees got bruised up, and she was kind of weak," Daniel reported. "She wasn't going anywhere today." Daniel had cleaned the house and done laundry instead.

A third client was waiting after Daniel left Fourth Street. She trotted to the bus stop -- Daniel spends a big chunk of each workday on city buses -- but the 62 wasn't in sight, so Daniel hoofed it. Willie Alston lived about a 15-minute walk away.

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