…Practical advice on finding a connection with who you are, what you're about and what a good death means to you as you grow inwardly and age outwardly.
An interview with Gregor Collins, author of The Accidental Caregiver, and actor, screenwriter, and producer

Accidental Caregiver_linked“From the most unlikely of unlikely romances comes a deeply felt, touching humorous exploration of what love and age mean in today’s world. I can’t recommend this book highly enough” —Stan Evans, Emmy award-winning writer, and author of Box of Mustaches

It’s a pleasure to introduce Gregor Collins to you. His memoir about his experience as a caregiver tells so much about the art of aging, the type of care most of us imagine being given, and the experience of dying as a loving leave-taking.

Gregor discovers through Maria what so many of us have forgotten: that end of life is about us, being empowered and living the life you want. A lovely story about how two people grew together and grew through each other. It’s about a friendship where age knows no boundaries. From the giving of care comes this beauty of a story illuminating the pleasures and joy of simply being together.

What were your first impressions of Maria?

“Moments before she shows up in the kitchen I’m sitting with her son Peter thinking of a dozen other places I’d rather be—what the hell am I doing in some old lady’s kitchen, I should be in an audition—and she rounds the corner on her walker, and she suddenly straightens up like a squirrel, and Peter stands up and I quickly follow suit, and then she looks right at me with that radiant smile and with the most delightful, lilting accent I’d ever heard, declares: “And you must Gregor.” I just remember smiling from ear to ear—this woman’s 92?? She was like a character out of a romance novel: elegant, dashing, captivating—right there, she really had me. It was like love at first sentence. From that moment on, for the next three years until her death, we were both utterly fascinated with everything about each other.”

When did you realize how she was touching your life rather than simply yours affecting hers?

“She got under my skin immediately, that was what was so special about our meeting. Neither of us really knew why, and we didn’t care to rationalize why. It just was. From “And you must be Gregor” I knew that I always wanted to be in her life. First off I never really had much of a relationship with my grandparents, so she was, among so many other things, a grandmother to me, although ironically I never saw Maria as an “old lady,” we were kindred spirits; soul mates. What did age matter?

The first walk we took around the block was a big one for me—I saw how precious she was and how comfortable I felt with myself. While we slowly walked she began telling me about her extraordinary childhood, about the Holocaust and her escape, about her aunt and all the famous artists she would entertain at her salons in Vienna—that coupled with the fact that I had never really taken an old lady on a walk! We hooked our arms, we smiled at all the waving neighbors, I helped her navigate around the cracks in the sidewalk and sit on a bench. It felt really good to show affection to SOMEONE OTHER THAN ME for a change; get my mind off my life that was as uneven as the pavement we were walking on.”

What about her is still present with you? How and why did she affect you so deeply?

“I’ve never had someone die that I felt as much love for as Maria, so that I have someone special who lives on inside me is something I really cherish. Her elegance is still so present, her grace, her humor, her wit, her occasional irresistibly naughty charm—she made and makes me a better man. And she treated everyone so well. She spoke to a gas station attendant with as much respect and ardor as she did with a friend or family member. I think that says pretty much everything about her.

It was partly selfish, why she affected me. I needed that unconditional love in my life, I was living such an empty, myopic existence. I needed her as an escape from that. And I think it worked both ways, I was an escape for her. When we were together she didn’t think of herself as an old lady, and I didn’t think of myself as anything but a stable, loving human being. there was no discord, no thought of the past or the future. We were existing in some present, pristine universe where time, age, and identity didn’t matter. I would bet that she often forgot she was in her 90’s. I needed her to show me the man I could be, and that “everything will be okay,” as she’d always like to say. We had a perfect relationship. How often in life can you say that you had a relationship that began and ended perfectly? We had that.”

How has your experience as caregiver changed your thoughts about living? Toward dying?

“I think it was a reminder that to get the most out of life we have to get out of your own head, get out of your comfort zone and reach out to other people; I think the happiest times in our lives are when we are with others, when we don’t feel any passage of time, we are just truly in the moment enjoying the love life has to offer. Every time I would help Maria with the littlest of things and see how much it meant to her—that this young, attractive guy who should be out meeting women or “doing naughty things,” as she’d like to joke—was actually perfectly content and enriched being with her, I would be reminded of that fact that I was right where I was supposed to be.

Maria’s daughter Margie said to me at her funeral: “You were my mother’s last great love.” Her son Chuck still loves to brag to waiters when we go out to dinner: “This guy sitting next to me made the last three years of my mother’s life worth living.” Hearing these things reminds me how lucky I was, how lucky I am.

Re: dying. I threw myself into caregiving not knowing a single thing about medicine—I still don’t. I’m frightened of the whole medical world, doctors, it’s a phobia of mine. I quickly realized that caregiving is really about unconditional love of the patient, not about knowledge of medicine. If I were an employer I’d rather hire a caregiver with no experience who has love in their heart than a caregiver who has years of experience who is cold or disengaged, or treats it like just another job. Especially towards the end of Maria’s life I realized that—even though medicine has its value—love was more powerful, and that her life was prolonged not from pills but from the love she gave and the love she was given. We also kept her young and scintillated, which helped prolong her life. Even at 94 she was still very in touch with her sexuality. Let’s just say that she didn’t mind the fact that she had three young male caregivers who were constantly at her beckon call.”

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Posted on January 12, 2014 by Diane Burnside Murdock

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