Caregiver, millionaire

Posted at 10/26/2008 8:49 AM | Updated as of 12/09/2008 4:57 PM

Former stenographer Ramona Alvir is now a millionaire after working as a caregiver in the United StatesI will never forget Edward Fabish; he made me rich. I never thought things would turn out this way.

Eight years ago, I was working as a stenographer at the Manila Prosecutors’ Office in City Hall.
 
When I left my job, my bosses –all prosecutors, my colleagues, and fellow stenographers never thought I would take the job of a caregiver. They said I was not the type.
 
An officemate warned me not to take the job of caring for the elderly because I might become intellectually obtuse.
 
They learned three years after I set foot in the United States of America that I became a millionaire.
 
I didn’t know I was the talk of the town until I got back in the country and someone told me people from my workplace were talking about my luck. News, indeed, travel fast.
 
But what happened to me, I guess, changed their prejudices on menial jobs, like caregiving.
 
I also never planned on being a caregiver.
 
***
I arrived in San Francisco December 13, 2000, after my husband, a Filipino born and raised in the US, petitioned me.
 
I met him in the Philippines, though his family is based in the US.
 
Three days after I arrived, I started working in my husband’s office. The job was very temporary and I could not get work in law firms since I don’t have a local experience as stenographer or court employee.
 
Then I heard from our landlady’s friend that someone needed a caregiver. At once, I applied for the job.
 
I started working “under the table,” or without credentials, earning $90 a day for staying five straight days in an elderly’s house.
On weekends, I took another caregiving job. I was rarely home during those days.
 
After three months, I was employed by a Filipino-owned agency where I got a higher rate of $145 a day taking care of another elderly woman. It was fortunate because I was looking for a much better salary.
 
The agency derives income from 5 percent of each caregiver’s monthly income. The good thing is that the commission they get from caregivers is very low. Caregivers also directly receive pay from clients before turning in the agency’s share.
 
On hindsight, my situation was better than other caregivers whose income is coursed through an agency. In other agencies, the cost of caring for an elderly is double its worth while in commission-based agencies the cost is lighter on the pockets.
 
But my service for the elderly woman was brief. It was fortunate, too, because “sakit sa ulo yung alaga kong yun” [She gave me headaches].
 
The agency then assigned me the third elderly I cared for, with the rate of $120 a day during weekends. That elderly was Edward Fabish, my first male patient.
 
***
Edward was of German-Irish descent and a Catholic like me. He was 88 and lived in West Portal, Bay Area of San Francisco. He used to be a railroad worker, doing heavy, manual labor until he had a hip fracture.
 
I took care of him for four-and-a-half days a week with the rate of $170 a day.
 
I cleaned his house, gave him medicine, cooked for him, and even washed his clothes. Though some of these chores were not required by the job, I did them nonetheless since I used to do them in the Philippines.
 
My first week with Edward was difficult. He couldn’t accept his condition and would shoo me away.
 
“I will jump from the window if you don’t let me go down by myself!” he yelled at me when I blocked his way at the top of the stairs going down to his garage.
 
“Go ahead, jump!” I yelled back. Though I never really meant what I said; I never moved from my spot. As a caregiver he hired, I was responsible for him. I would have to answer for whatever happened to him.
 
Edward was at the stage of denial because he used to be strong and able, judging from the framed photographs on the shelves and on the walls. Most of the pictures showed him in tip-top shape built through hard work.
 
***
Edward was unmarried and childless and with no other relatives except his younger sister who was also with a caregiver. Their brother, the youngest, had died before them.
 
Aside from his hip fracture, he had a catheter, a tube attached to his side where his urine passed through. He had it when I started taking care of him until the day he died. Whenever I would clean him, I would also clean the catheter and the catheter bag.
 
Taking care of him also meant encouraging him to do the things he used to do, like gardening and driving. I admit, though, I got nervous with him driving; we almost had two accidents. But he wanted to drive despite his physical limitations.
 
Edward was not that difficult to take care of, mind you, but I always had to be there with him. He would have fallen several times had I failed to hold him up. Despite my being just above 4 feet, with Edward’s just a few inches taller, I was still able to help him walk or stand. If I had to go on an errand, I brought him with me – I walked beside him as he rode a scooter.
 
***
 
When Edward’s sister, a spinster, died, he had my husband Gary and I live with him since he had no one. I volunteered to pay rent for our room because I didn’t want him to think I was abusing his kindness or that I was guilty of elderly abuse.
 
I also wanted to avoid the moment he becomes “goopy.”
 
You see, the elderly tend to become “goopy,” or start to lose themselves, suddenly changing attitudes.
 
Sometimes they would say their illness has returned, causing them pain. Sometimes it would come to a point where they would accuse you of robbing or taking advantage of them.
 
From my experience, that’s how the elderly are. You really have to be patient with them.
 
But, yes, there are many cases of elderly abuse in America. If you’re found guilty, you’re dead. If the elderly does not feel like eating, you cannot force him to eat. If you leave or neglect him, dupe money out of him, verbally abuse him, you could be charged with elderly abuse.
 
That is because the elderly may not be able to report abuses done to them unless somebody, sometimes a fellow Filipino, reports it.
 
So I paid Edward $300 in monthly rent, aside from sharing in paying the water, electricity, and telephone bills. That time, my job with the agency became seven days a week. I rarely rested.
 
Since I could not just leave him alone in his house, I brought him to family gatherings, usually hosted by my in-laws.
 
One day, the agency sent a reliever to take care of him on weekends.
 
“I fired her,” Edward said when I came home not finding my reliever around.
 
He said he felt my reliever was not sincere and was after his money. That was how I ended up working 24/7 for Edward.
 
At night, whenever I slept in his room, I would be so exhausted I’d fail to notice I was already slumped on the floor. I would be so tired that the moment my back touched the floor, I would be in a long-deep sleep. I relied on an alarm clock to wake me up.
 
One time, he heard me coughing.
 
“If only I could sleep on the floor, I would have traded places with you,” Edward said from his bed.
 
I told him not to worry since we Filipinos are used to sleeping on the floor.
 
When he was about to die, he always wanted me beside him.
 
He got used to having me sleep on the floor at the foot of his bed he wanted me beside him up to his death.
 
He got angry one time when he didn’t find me in his room to answer his demands.
 
***
But Edward was thrifty, so much so he didn’t buy anything for himself. With his extreme frugality, I never thought of him having money to spare.
 
When I started taking care of him, he had three pieces of underwear that had holes in them.
 
He didn’t even want to buy a recliner chair he needed to lift his swollen foot because he didn’t want to pay the $25 delivery charge! I paid for it instead just so he could get that chair.
 
So aside from buying him food, I shopped clothes for him: long sleeves, pants, shoes, and underwear.
 
When he got really sick, I brought him to the hospital. He was about to die and was already with an oxygen apparatus and yet he wanted to go home because an aspirin would cost him $2. He even removed his oxygen mask and insisted on going to the bank to pay his taxes.
 
I didn’t know if he turned purple at the bank because he had to pay taxes.
 
It surprised me, hence, when he gave me $5,000 during the first Christmas we spent together.
 
“This is for the kids,” Edward said. He explained he held on to it because he was afraid I would spend the money gambling.
 
We had been frequenting casinos that time.
 
It’s a common gesture for the elderly to give their caregivers money. They would say they are satisfied with how they’re taken care of and that they feel the sincerity of the caregiver.
 
Filipino caregivers exude this characteristic because most of us really know how to take care of our own elderly.
 
Of course, there are some who hope to find luck while taking care of a well-off elderly and be rewarded for what they have done. That is not only true of Filipinos but of other nationalities as well.
 
It did not occur to me, however, that he would reward me with anything because he was too frugal.
 
But one day, Edward asked me if I wanted to receive a monthly allowance from him or include me in his will.
 
I told him to just put me in his will. I was not one to decline his offer. Alangan namang tanggihan ko di ba? [I would be a hypocrite if I said no.]
 
He did not know he had left as much as $2.5 million when he died.
 
He gave me 25 percent of the inheritance while he gave the rest to charity.
 
***
Of course, a lot of caregivers hope they will be rewarded for their service. Almost everyone wants that to happen.
 
But not all elderly give allowances to their caregivers; it’s for them or their family to decide.
 
If you are a caregiver, you have to be sincere and patient since the elderly already have memory lapses. They get easily irritated and are lonely most of the time.
 
Sometimes, to make Edward happy, I cooked chicken adobo. He called it “bobo.” It became his favorite dish.
 
Other Filipino dishes he learned to love and which I cooked for him were pancit bihon, lumpiang shanghai, and sinigang.
 
Edward’s staple food was a small serving of rice or oatmeal in the morning and steamed chicken and beans during full meals.
 
One time after a full meal of beans, he wanted to cut a branch of a tree on his front yard.
 
I was behind, holding onto his belt to keep him steady him while he climbed a ladder. And then he released gas.
 
I almost dropped him.
 
I still fed Edward beans but his tree-branch cutting days were over.
 
Still, caregiving is easier than office work where you have to be early everyday, dress up, rush things, and spend for your transportation.
 
In my experience, caregivers need only to go to their workplace and leave after a week. It’s a practical and financially-rewarding job.
 
Of course, there are sacrifices. You can only be with your family during weekends. The most you can do is call them. I go to work on Monday mornings and I go home on Saturday mornings.
 
***
Edward might have known he would die soon as his physical condition worsened.
 
His lungs had been retaining water. He had congested heart failure. He had cancer on the skin and face.
 
He must have felt his time was nearing when we were cleaning his sister’s grave.
 
Soon after, we arranged everything for his burial. The costs for the burial were also included in his will.
 
We could not go to church on Sundays anymore. In his last days, the priest would come by the house everyday to give him communion.
 
I saw him through his deathbed.
 
Edward died at the age of 89 at his home, where he wanted to be.
 
Coincidentally, my husband Gary was rushed to the hospital for appendicitis at the time Edward breathed his last.
 
I could not be there for my husband because no one else was there to take care of Edward’s funeral.
 
Gary, with the care of my in-laws, recuperated without me by his side. He got out of the hospital just when Edward was about to be buried.
 
Edward’s lawyer told me I received 25 percent of what he left behind.
 
I didn’t know then how much he had or if he was rich because he held on to money with closed fist.
***
When I got the money Edward left me in 2003, I was surprised; it was worth P30 million.
 
The money was that much that by October of that year, I was able to buy five houses in Sacramento, California, and put them up on the market for lease.
 
When Edward was still alive, he wanted to give me his house.
 
“Do you like this house?” he once asked.
 
“It’s up to you,” I replied.
 
But his lawyer said the will was already done.
 
“Besides, whatever you provided her would be enough for her to buy her own house,” his lawyer added.
 
I didn’t insist because I felt it was wrong for me to aspire for more. What Edward gave me was really more than enough.
 
His house, worth $0.575 million, was liquidated and the rest of his money went to his church and other charity groups.
I consider myself really, really lucky that after all the hardships, Edward came into my life so suddenly.
 
Although things did not come easy working for him, he gave me a good life.
 
I can help my family now. I can send my nieces and nephews to private schools. I can give my daughters a good life when I, myself, grew up in hard times.
 
I never thought of owning houses in the US because I never even had a house of my own in the Philippines.
 
My mother used to wash clothes for a living and my father was an employee, so I have never experienced studying in a private school either.
 
I have my two duplexes rented and earning well; the same with the two other houses. We are living in my third house.
 
Real estate prices, however, have gone down because of the recession and as the US dollar weakened. Some tenants have been causing me problems since they can’t pay on time unless I give them penalty for the delay.
 
But I’m a kind landlady; my penalty’s just 5 percent of the monthly rent.
 
***
My time will come – I am 40 and my husband is 49 – so I still need to work hard for my family.
 
Yes, we are workaholics.
 
My husband and I flew here in the Philippines together but he’s already back to work now after a week stay.
 
By now our three daughters –Hazel, 19, my daughter from a previous relationship, and Princess, 13, and Reyna, 12, Gary’s daughters from his previous relationship– are used to not having us around the house. I’m usually out for 12 straight days.
 
I also have a child patient who is dying of cancer of the lymph node. He is 14 years old. I have been helping in his medication since 2006.
 
When my mother is not with my children, we pay a day care center near where we live $50 a day for the kids.
 
I may build a foundation in Edward’s name for the education of street children in the Philippines. Maybe I can do that when my children, nieces, and nephews are done with their schooling.
 
I still work because I help my siblings send their sons and daughters to school. All in all, I help send 14 students to private schools.
 
The eldest of my scholars has entered college while the rest are in grade school and high school.
 
Supporting them financially for their education is the only help I can give them. I advise all of them to take up nursing because that’s where the money is.
 
I would have wanted to study again and enroll in nursing but I am already doing so many things. So what I did was enroll in a Certified Nursing Assistant course, which is a step higher than caregiving.
 
If you are a CNA, you can work in a field nursing facility such as a nursing home and take care of six to eight patients. The salary is higher but the job is much harder. Itong liit kong ito lalo akong liliit. (I bet I’d get even smaller if I do the work of a CNA.)
 
If you are a caregiver, you only take care of one elderly. It’s a lighter load than a CNA’s but still earns big.
 
Job and money are always there for caregivers because the US will never run out of old people that need care.
 
Today I’m living a good life, but I’m still a caregiver. OFW Journalism Consortium, with support from the Royal Netherlands Embassy in the Philippines