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Fearless Caregiver Abroad

by Cheryl Ellis, Staff Writer

Over a year ago, Steve Herzfeld took a fearless leap of caregiving faith when he moved to India with his parents.  Mom’s Parkinson’s disease was on a roll and Dad’s Alzheimer’s provided its own challenges. 

Steve’s caregiving journey began when he moved in temporarily to help his parents out after Mom’s broken hip. “Temporary” became redefined in caregiver terms when his visit stretched to three years.  While considering options limited to nursing homes with gargantuan fees (over $3,000 monthly) and questionable care, a longtime friend suggested an international leap of faith—a move to India.

With help from his friend and colleague, arrangements were made to make the move to Pondicherry, on India’s southern coast.  With its French colonial influences, it includes English and French among languages spoken.  Dad, brought up in Switzerland, could communicate in both languages; an added bonus to exercise his mind.

No stranger to India, Steve’s work with Transcendental Meditation ( TM ) had taken him to India previously.  Those five years in India were instrumental in helping him make the transition. 

Although he’s referred to the initial weeks of settling in as “chaotic,” the benefits of care abroad quickly mounted.  Massage therapy, 24/7 help with meals, bathroom trips and incidentals were far less costly than in the States.  Back in the US, one half of the care would have broken everyone financially, with Medicaid as a final resort.  Yet, half a world away, there was money left over for general savings. 

While family may consider India another planet, Steve’s caregiving journey has taught him to live within many realities.  Dad’s Alzheimer’s provides its own version of time travel, for example.  Yet, in this “other world,” there are people and places that have brought the family a level of closeness that only improves health and well-being.

His parents’ lives and health, enriched by a new environment and diet, were just the beginning.  The staff added their own compassionate care to give his aging parents’ support and one-on-one attention.

Today, Steve and Dad stay on in Pondicherry, but things have changed.  During the summer of 2007, Mom passed away in her sleep.  The care she received with such devotion could only have helped with the peaceful transition. 

Dad’s Alzheimer’s has affected the healing time and Steve has fearlessly adapted to it.  “Dad’s Alzheimer’s has created a situation where he can’t remember that she passed away.  Many times each day he begins looking for her.”  Steve’s creative solution was to print a few pages from Mom’s traditional Jewish burial at Mumbai’s active synagogue.  This method allows Dad to experience the reality of the event and be comforted that their wishes for a traditional funeral were met. 

Since Dad wanted to be buried next to his beloved, arrangements were made for the future.  “He jokes that he’s among the elite in India who own real estate in Mumbai.”

These days, the pace has slowed.  The cook and the night help have stayed on, and the massage therapist who helped Mom so much has become Dad’s full-time assistant.

Dad may no longer travel due to ailments other than the Alzheimer’s, but he reads the paper between visits with those who drop in.  There is cable TV to keep him oriented to the world outside of Pondicherry.

A part-time job with a friend’s company allows Steve to work at home.  He does notice a decline in Dad’s energy levels, which is not uncommon when a spouse passes.  However, Dad is 93.  In these elder years, which might have been spent in a nursing home in the States, he has a better quality of life in India.

While Steve mentions that the current situation is “lonely but manageable,” he does so with the mentality of a fearless caregiver.  No situation is perfect every minute of every day.  He credits caregiver mentor Gary Barg and his own continued work with Transcendental Meditation as two guiding forces in maintaining his stability.  What Steve modestly does not mention is that Gary and Transcendental Meditation have only brought out in him the qualities of every fearless caregiver.   They are the ability to welcome the current reality with peace from within; changing only what can be changed.

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