For Mr. Bronson, a neighbor's kind act led to a new family
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 10:34 PM
They lived across the street from each other for years, though they didn't know each other well.
James Bronson was a fixture in Adams Morgan, a retired African American barber who'd lived on Euclid Street for more than three decades, greeting passersby from his front stoop.
John O'Leary was 25 years younger, a white sound engineer who'd bought his six-bedroom townhouse just as the neighborhood was beginning to gentrify.
Not the likeliest of roommates. But when Mr. Bronson - and he is always Mr. Bronson - lost his home in 1996 and had nowhere to go, O'Leary offered to take him in rent-free. It was a split-second decision that would profoundly change both their lives.
"I just said, 'Will you move in with me?' I have a big house, and I lived by myself. That seemed like a natural, obvious solution to the situation right then and there," O'Leary said.
In the years since, O'Leary and his longtime partner, Nadine Epstein, have grown to be much more than Mr. Bronson's roommates. They are now his chief caregivers, and their responsibilities have multiplied as Mr. Bronson's health has deteriorated.
Now the couple are facing the inevitable decline of the warmhearted gentleman they consider part of their family - and they are grappling with the same tough decisions that face many adult children with aging parents: Should he continue living with them? Or would he be better off in a nursing home?
Mr. Bronson is 90. It is sometimes difficult for him to talk, but he always brightens when he sees the couple, whom he calls "the ones that help me stay alive and survive."
"Right now, I'm in a spot where I need a little help," he said softly. "Mr. John stepped in."
On a cold Saturday, O'Leary, 66, and Epstein, 54, stopped by to have lunch with Mr. Bronson at the Washington Home in Northwest, where he has been undergoing therapy since his dementia and balance worsened in December.
Although their own lives are hectic, they try to visit several times a week- O'Leary bringing treats like peanut butter and cherries; Epstein taking him to music performances downstairs, where they "dance" while Mr. Bronson sits in his wheelchair. They also ferry Mr. Bronson to his medical appointments.
Epstein fed Mr. Bronson from a takeout container of lamb tapas she'd had ground for him at the cafe across the street, but he didn't seem that hungry.