Aaron Weinberger is one of FriendshipWorks’ Friendly Visiting volunteers and over the past several years has been matched four times with older men who each faced physical, mental, or cognitive challenges. In June 2019, Aaron was matched with Mark,* who lived alone in a tiny studio apartment in the Back Bay, without the support of family and friends in the Boston area. Here Aaron shares his extraordinary story. (*Mark is a pseudonym)
I met Mark in June 2019 and liked him immediately. How could I not? He was sweet, gentle, and kind. But he was alone. Very alone. That hadn’t been a problem for most of his life. But as he aged and it became harder for him to do the things he’d always done in the ways he’d always done them, Mark was struggling.
This wasn’t my first experience with FriendshipWorks. I’d been matched previously with two sweet old guys: Jack, who was married and whose wife just needed a break from caring for him once a week, and John, who lived in a facility in Boston and needed someone to accompany him on walks. Aside from John’s love of a certain pinstriped New York baseball team, I felt great affection for both gentlemen.
Unlike Jack and John, Mark was without a support system. He lived in a tiny studio apartment in the Back Bay and had no family or friends. He’d lost his parents when he was young and, with a quiver in his voice, often told me that he’d never been loved; it broke my heart each time he said it.
The “no friends” statement needs some clarification. Mark had an old friend, Keith, in the Midwest, where he’d lived for a stretch. But Mark and Keith spoke infrequently and hadn’t seen each other in years. And a young couple in Mark’s building had befriended him but moved away shortly before I entered the picture.
In fact, it’s that couple who I have to thank for my introduction to Mark. They kept in touch with him after they relocated and became concerned that he was going downhill. Eventually, their concern grew so great that they contacted FriendshipWorks to see if a volunteer might be available for friendly visits. Not long after, I knocked on his door.
The original assignment was straightforward: Mark was down and lonely and needed someone to talk to. I could be that someone. But it became clear almost immediately that he was in need of serious help. He was in a deep depression and at risk of losing his job, and basic tasks like paying bills and getting groceries had become so overwhelming that he simply stopped doing them.
My weekly visits became an exercise in both productivity and futility. We got a lot done when I was there—fridge stocked, bills paid, sheets changed, laundry cleaned—but he never followed through on the other things that needed his attention, like applying for short-term disability so he could deal with his depression without fear of termination.
By the time I met Mark, he’d been at his job for several decades after stints in the army. He was probably a capable employee once, but times change: Despite his and his boss’s best efforts, he didn’t know how to use a computer and wasn’t able to learn. He fretted constantly and cursed the world for complicating a process that once made sense. He didn’t know what to do, so he just stopped going to work. And he stayed in bed. Always.
I encouraged Mark to look into retiring and consider moving into either an independent or assisted living facility. While he resisted both changes, I eventually convinced him to join me on a visit to the facility in Boston, where we met with an administrator I’d known during my time with John. Unfortunately, Mark grew angry when he heard the monthly rent and demanded we leave. He didn’t even want to take the tour I had arranged.
For a few months after that unsuccessful attempt at forward progress, Mark continued to live the way he’d been living—barely employed and declining mentally, physically, and emotionally.
And then early in 2020, I arrived one fateful Saturday morning and found him completely out of it. He’d been in bed all week. He hadn’t eaten. He hadn’t bathed. And he was shaking and disoriented. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. Finally, I talked him into going to the hospital. We took an Uber to MGH and spent a long, exhausting day moving between waiting rooms and exam rooms. That night, he was admitted to the psych ward, where he stayed for a week. I visited him every day after work, determined to make sure he knew that someone in this lonely world cared about him and was invested in his recovery.
That week, while Mark was getting the medical care he needed, I made it my mission to identify solutions to Mark’s two most urgent problems: his tenuous employment and his inability to continue to live on his own.
Mark had little interest in money. In fact, I’d found thousands of dollars’ worth of long-forgotten U.S. bonds under his bed. (We spent about three hours one Saturday afternoon at the bank endorsing and depositing the bonds into his savings account. A story for another time.) Not surprisingly, he didn’t have a firm grip on his finances and therefore didn’t believe me when I told him he could retire. He was a model in frugality. Breakfast was a bowl of cereal and a half a banana, lunch was a cheese sandwich, and he ate dinner at the café at MGH every night. I asked him once how he started eating all his dinners at MGH, and he couldn’t remember. It was just one of those things he did because he’d always done it.
Aside from food and a very reasonable rent, the only expense Mark incurred was for a ticket to the occasional performance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Even then, as I learned firsthand on more than one occasion, he’d only spring for seats in the very top row—kind of half-seats where full ones didn’t fit. (The left side of my body is still recovering.)
Mark had the means to retire, and although independent and assisted living facilities are expensive, he could afford to move in to one. After his week in the hospital, I found he wasn’t as resistant as he’d been before. He knew he needed help, and he was warming to the idea of a move.
One very productive day in February 2020, I took the afternoon off work, and Mark and I went first to the retirement office, where we met with an advisor and submitted his retirement paperwork. Mark yelled a little while we were there—a more frequent occurrence, unfortunately—but I calmed him and explained things as clearly as I could. He didn’t understand the details—retiring was much more complicated than either of us could have imagined—but he trusted me, and he knew that I was looking out for his best interest.
When we finished at the retirement office, we walked to the residential facility, where we finally got that tour. During our visit, Mark kept saying, “The people here are so old!” I had to remind him that he was the old one: The average resident age was 72; he was 78.
Through back-of-the-envelope calculations, I tried to show him that his savings combined with his social security and pension were enough to cover his rent for many years. He couldn’t follow it. Again, though, he trusted me and knew I was steering him in the right direction.
A month or so after completing the paperwork and officially retiring, the facility granted him admission. I spent a weekend packing up his belongings and took a day off to move him.
The timing wasn’t great, of course. Mark’s biggest concern was a loss of agency. And by the time a room became available, the facility had instituted a number of reasonable but stifling Covid restrictions. Mark moved in, but he had to check his independence at the door, first because of the pandemic, then a decline in mobility, and then a dementia diagnosis. After a little while, the staff stopped allowing him to go out on his own—he had gotten lost a few times, and the risk had simply become too great.
The facility was warm and welcoming, with a dedicated, loving staff, but Mark was becoming more than they could handle. His depression was worsening—getting him out of bed for breakfast was a daily battle—and his cognitive decline was accelerating. He was hallucinating and described, with trepidation, seeing snakes under his bed and tigers prowling his room. He couldn’t remember even basic facts. And he was quick to anger.
The years Mark was there were difficult. Sometimes during my visits, I saw the sweet old guy I knew and loved; other times, I saw only his darkness. He yelled, berated the staff, and told me he was ready to die. He even cursed God, which, as a devout Catholic, he immediately regretted but regularly repeated.
And then, out of the blue, Keith suggested something neither Mark nor I had considered: Would Mark be interested in moving to a facility in near him in the Midwest?
Mark dismissed the idea out of hand. But weeks later, during one of my visits, he said, unexpectedly, “You know, I think I might move to the Midwest.” I had mixed feelings. His troubles would surely follow him, but I thought he might enjoy being closer to Keith and Keith’s family. Keith was Catholic and offered a weekly ride to church, a rite Mark missed terribly. I also knew his savings would stretch further there than in Boston.
After a few conversations with Keith and assurances from Mark that he wanted to move, I began researching memory care facilities in the Midwest. I found a couple of promising options and arranged for Keith to tour the facilities. He reported back, we filled out applications, and we waited. Thanks to the interminable pandemic, all of the facilities faced staffing shortages, and most weren’t accepting new residents, especially ones with a documented history of being difficult to manage.
Finally, though, we found a facility with an available room, good reviews, and professional staff. We submitted an application to the Pavilions and a few weeks later got the good news: Mark had been admitted. He was going to the Midwest to be closer to his friend.
Or rather, we were going to the Midwest.
After the elation of his admission had passed, I realized that I couldn’t put a severely depressed, immobile, 80-year-old man with dementia on a plane by himself. Time for a little adventure.
Over the course of a few weeks, Mark and I went through his belongings and made three piles: keep, donate, or toss. I packed up the things he wanted to take with him, arranged for shipping, and bought a couple of plane tickets, only one roundtrip.
After a lot of planning and answering Mark’s questions many, many times, the morning of our trip arrived at last. I made my way to his facility in Boston extra early for a meeting with the head of nursing and left his office with extensive documentation and a big box of medication. Mark and I packed up a few last-minute items and headed for the airport. All things considered, the trip couldn’t have been smoother.
Keith and his wife, Jane, greeted us when we arrived and were kind and welcoming, as I knew they’d be from our phone calls and Zooms. We spent the next few hours settling Mark into his new home. At dinner time, we walked him to a table where he sat with two other residents in the dining area. While they greeted him warmly, I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. He looked lost, so small and unsure if he’d made the right decision. I felt like a parent leaving his kid at camp. How could I abandon him here? With these strangers?
He looked at me and said, “So I’ll never see you again?” I told him I didn’t know, but that I was always just a phone call away. With that, Keith, Jane, and I left. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Keith and Jane took me to dinner and welcomed me into their home that night. I slept terribly. Early the next morning, I decided to walk back to Mark’s new home before heading to the airport. I spent a couple of hours helping him get acclimated and providing the assurances he desperately sought. I’m grateful we had that time together.
As soon as I returned home that night, Mark called to ask me what time I’d be there next week. I reminded him that I live in Boston, and he now lives many miles away. We had a few more phone calls like that over the ensuing days.
We still speak once a week or so. Although Mark continues to struggle with all the issues he faced in Boston, he tells me each time that he’s glad he made the move. He sees Keith regularly and seems to prefer living in the Midwest.
Every once in a while, I open a book about the Red Sox that Mark gave me as a gift when he was living on his own in that cramped apartment in Boston. He wasn’t much of a sports fan, but he knew I loved the old town team, for better or worse. Inside the book’s cover, in shaky, cursive lettering, he wrote an inscription that gets me every time I read it: “Aaron, Thank you for bringing me back to life!! Mark.”
Thank you, FriendshipWorks, for bringing us together.