Opening a home with love for a patchwork family
Jean Brisson moved with her family to Charlemont, Mass., nearly 20 years ago.
“I moved here because my father had sold his house in Northampton and relocated to this area,” says Jean, “and I had children and they were very close with my dad.” Now, Jean’s children are grown, and, though they still live close by, all but the youngest have moved out of the house and started families of their own.
Thanks to Jean’s work as a paid caregiver through the Adult Family Care (AFC) program at LifePath, her home is still a house filled to the brim with love.
“I’d be a lonely old lady in a seven-bedroom house if I didn’t have them,” says Jean. “Think about that! I’d have to sell my house and move away.”
It all started back in 2004, when a friend of Jean’s called. “[She] said, ‘Would you ever consider doing adult foster care?’ And I immediately said, ‘No. I have three kids.’ My boys were in high school, so she said, ‘Well, would you meet the young man? He’s your twins’ age, and they may know him. He goes to the same school.’ And so I met him and loved him the minute I met him.” Jean welcomed her first AFC client into her home that summer, and she’s been caring for folks of various ages ever since. “And then subsequently I would get a phone call saying, ‘Would you consider taking another person?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know. Let me meet them.’ So I would meet them and then we had another fellow move in.” That was Bill, who, says Jean, “stayed for a long, long time. And then we ended up with the three ladies that I have now.”
Those three ladies are Marcia, Jane, and Brenda. “Marcia, she was here first, of the three ladies,” says Jean, “and she tends to know everything the best, too, so she’s really helpful and can be a little bit instructive with everybody. She is a tiny little thing. She’s 74 years old.”
About six years ago, Jane joined the family. “Jane and Marcia are really, really, really good friends,” says Jean.
Brenda moved in after Bill passed away. “We have a brand new person that has moved in, and she immediately said to both Marcia and Jane, ‘Would you be my new sisters?’”
The women have a daily routine during the weekdays. “In the morning,” says Jean, “we get up around 5:30, and I come down first and get everybody’s meds ready, set up the mornings, set up breakfast. So between running up and down stairs, it’s a pretty full workout in the morning between 5:30 and 8:30.”
To receive care through AFC, a person must be an elder or have a disability and be over the age of 16 with daily personal or medical care needs. “It’s not cookie cutter,” Jean says. Each of the ladies who live with Jean have their own level of activities that they can either manage on their own or manage with Jean’s help. “Marcia gets ready first, so I help Marcia shower. Then she comes down and gets her breakfast and her pill,” says Jean. “Then I wake Brenda and help her get ready and then do her breakfast routine. While she’s eating breakfast, the other two girls leave by 7:30, and then Brenda leaves by 8:30.”
While Brenda, Jane, and Marcia are at their adult day health programs, Jean goes to work – sometimes from home and other times in the field – as a case manager with a company that serves residents of nursing homes. “Then everybody comes home by 3:30,” says Jean. “On nice days, Marcia and Jane walk the length of the driveway, because Marcia is really diligent about being healthy and having exercise and being skinny so she can go on vacation. And then the best part of the day is Judge Judy. So Marcia comes in, turns on the TV, and everybody watches Judge Judy.” Finally, the women have dinner together before getting ready for bed to rest and be ready for the next day.
Weekends are more laid-back. “We get to sleep a little bit later, like 7 o’clock, instead of 5:30. We’ll do some activities. Marcia and Jane will go out with a companion sometimes. My daughter, who lives here also, she will do nail care, paint the girls’ nails, or she and Marcia do scrapbooking sometimes, and Jane’s puzzles.” Jane enjoys doing her puzzles upside down for an extra challenge.
“It’s a family kind of atmosphere,” says Jean. “They’re just part of our household. They’re part of our family. We’ve been together so long that we just complement each other. It’s just a natural flow for us.”
Jean, Marcia, and Jane all take a vacation together each year. “The first place we went was Disney, and Marcia loved it. Jane absolutely loved it, but Marcia, she will tell everybody about her Disney trip.” After a year away from Disney, when they took a vacation to the Poconos instead, the women have agreed to return to the Happiest Place on Earth, “because the Poconos are just not as cool,” says Jean.
In Jean’s home, love and care go hand-in-hand. “Having a family atmosphere really provides this other connection that you don’t find in a group home, you don’t find in a nursing home,” says Jean. “I have six grandchildren and they’re all little. They’re here almost every day. And so when they come in, they’re like, ‘Hey, Grammy! Hi, Marcia! Hi, Jane! Hi, Brenda!’” The whirlwind of young energy is one way that living in Jean’s home is special for Jean, Marcia, and Brenda, who would be unlikely to see children very often if they were living in an institutional environment.
Recently, one of the men Jean cared for passed away, and his life and death had a big impact on the whole family. “We miss Bill so, so much,” says Jean. He had an especially close relationship with the children. “When Bill used to live here, the little one would run and he’d go sit on Bill’s bed and watch TV with him and hang out with him.”
One of the boys would collect garden tools and bring them in for him and Bill to explore. “He took them out of the package and he handed them one by one to Bill and showed Bill,” says Jean. “And Bill was talking to him about how you use each thing. That was so empowering for this child, who was two at the time, but it was also this huge gift to Bill, because he just had this relationship.”
The children count everyone in Jean’s house as part of the family. “All the ladies have that kind of relationship with the kids, you know? And none of them leave without making the rounds: ‘Bye, Marcia! Bye, Jane! Bye, Brenda!’ Of course, Brenda would be like, ‘What?’ And they’re like, ‘Bye, Brenda!’ She’s like, ‘What? You’re going?’ They’re like, ‘Bye, Brenda!’ So it’s hilarious, too. I mean, we have so many fun times and funny times.” And when that whirlwind of children gets too wild, they can send the little gusts of wind back out the door. “We send them home,” laughs Jean, “the girls and I send them home sometimes.”
The women have support from a team from AFC at LifePath in the form of a dedicated social worker and nurse. “I’ve had Carol and Tina on my team for a really, really long time,” says Jean, “and so it’s nice, because they’re very familiar with the ladies, and the ladies recognize them and they like to get a visit.”
If Jean has a question, she feels she can call on the AFC program for support at any time. “Not only are the social worker and the nurse available at the time of their visit, but I can call them with questions or just for support,” says Jean. “There are times when you just want to run your idea by somebody. The AFC program, they’re a phone call away, and it’s nice to just have a team. So I’m grateful for that.”
Jean is fortunate that she has a great relationship with each of the women in her care, and appreciates that “you’re not isolated, and you’re not alone, and you’re not making all these decisions,” but she also knows that she would not be asked to continue caring for someone who was not a good fit. “You do have the option of recognizing if it’s not a good fit or not a good match,” says Jean, “and the participant does, too.”
Jean has been fortunate to have long and lasting positive relationships with the people she has come to call family. “If you have the right relationship and you have a good match, then that person becomes a part of your life and you’re a part of their life.”
Before Bill passed away, everyone in the family came to see him in the hospital. “I walked in on my daughter-in-law saying to Bill, ‘Bill, I just want to thank you because you have been such a great friend to my sons, and they love you. And we all love you. And I just want to thank you.’ That was it for me,” says Jean. “That is what AFC is about. It’s just sharing your life with somebody and it’s meaningful, and you love them and they love you.”
Jean feels she gets back more from her work as a caregiver than she gives. “So it doesn’t feel like I’m doing this great big service to anybody at all. A lot of times people will say to me, ‘Oh, you’re a saint.’ Well, I’m not a saint. It’s self-serving, because I love them and they love me,” says Jean, “and it’s not like a job or a chore to be with somebody that you love.”
Adult Family Care is seeking more caregivers to enhance their income while opening their homes to enrich the lives of others. Learn more about becoming a paid caregiver with AFC.