The making of… Renovation my Aunt’s apartment
As I finally sit here to start documenting the renovation process of my aunt’s apartment, there are a few things that led me to this point.
Last November, just after my birthday, I left to Spain to visit my aunt who had being living alone for the past year after her sister passed away. She never married or had children, so her extended family became her support even though we were all far from her. I am in Germany; the one closest to her. She had being having health issues and it was imminent that I visit her. As I arrived, what I found was worse than I ever imagined. Her health had deteriorated to the point that I had to take her to the hospital, and she was not allowed to leave. My original trip was to stay for one week; I ended up staying close to a month.
I found myself alone, responsible for my elderly aunt who was being given blood transfusions to bring her back to life, she had stopped eating, and was in a serious state of starvation. As she recuperated in the hospital, I had to decide what to do, staying in her apartment alone was no longer an option, and just like that, I found myself walking the streets of a Spanish town, visiting all the elderly homes looking for a place for her. With the help of Google, I made a list of all available retirement homes in the town. I soon found out that people don’t just walk in and find a place!!! The first four places I visited had no places available and a waiting list. I must add that this is a preferred retirement village, a costal city overlooking the Mediterranean with warm mild weather, perfect for retirement. Following my list, I called and made an appointment to where my aunt is living now, and to my surprise they told me they had an opening. On the phone I told them to hold the place, even before I had actually seen the facilities. As I was getting closer, the taxi driver pointed out to me a huge yellow building, that looked more like an old Spanish hacienda than a nursing home. I felt optimistic. I was greeted by two of the friendliest women I have encountered so far in Spain, the nursing home’s psychologist and the social worker. Before they even started talking to me, I said to myself, this is the place.
The next task was to make it happen. I reserved the only available place for my aunt, without an arrival date, since I had no idea when she was going to leave the hospital. In any case, they were nice enough to understand my situation; we did not sign anything, just an old fashion handshake. Both my aunts had worked in the financial sector in New York, and in their retirement decided to move to Spain. They had managed their finances well, until the financial crises on 2007-2008, where they lost a big part of their investment portfolio. She is financially well off, but the truth is that the high monthly payment is not sustainable in the long term. At that moment, I had no choice, that was the only option since I had to leave her alone; in this nursing home she has 24-hour care, which is what she needs now.
My aunt’s decision 25 years ago to move to Spain was responsible for me being there trapped in paradise. Besides all the stress of having to make all these decisions for another human being, for me a time of deep reflection that I would not want my children to be responsible for my happiness, or to do what I was doing, we must make a plan for what comes for everyone; old age.
She had being living alone for one year, and frail as she was, her apartment was a reflection of her physical and mental state, total chaos. I decided to clean up also because I was living there, and could not stand it. She had given me and my sister a power of attorney to take care of all her affairs, so by cleaning, I spent hours reading all her files, from bank statements, personal letters, small notes written at moments where she seemed to have been falling apart. I cleaned and cried for hours all alone. I communicated often with my sister in the United States, she was my life line, I could not share what I was living with my parents, or my children, my sadness would have filled their hearts with sadness as well, and there was nothing they could have done for me, or for my aunt.
So having learned from my dad, I went like a bulldozer and cleaned and threw out everything that was useless. My aunt had also been an artist when she was younger, so I found over 40 paintings stored all over. On the walls they had some impersonal decorative paintings bought in Macy’s New York probably!!! After cleaning up, I gave away the decorations and hung all her original paintings. I knew she probably would not go back, but for me a small act of celebration of her life.
Parallel to my efforts to leave my aunt well installed, we had to think of a long-term solution. One of the options was for her to go back to her country and find a nursing home there. She had not lived there for more than 50 years, it was a strange country, but her older brother (my father) still lives there with my mom and my brother. So they started looking for alternatives, living with my parents was not an option, as they are also in their 80’s. As I returned every night to the apartment, I encountered my aunt’s neighbours, all so kind, and worried for her. The man in charge of the maintenance of the building was like family to her, and he became my family, helping me with everything I needed, and always giving me a word of encouragement. Feeling this warmth, slowly but surely it became more apparent that her home was there, where her affections are. She knew nobody back home.
I finally took her out of the hospital to the nursing home, so frail, so afraid of her new beginning. In preparation to her arrival, besides all the paperwork, I had to bring her everything she would need there. I was given a list of things to bring. Besides all the documents I had to gather, insurance etc.… I had to bring her clothes marked with her name. They asked for 6 of each, pants, t-shirts, blouses, etc.… I stood in her apartment holding a permanent marker, crying as I wrote her name in each one of the pieces of clothing. A whole life simplified in 6 items of each.
I am authentically in love with this nursing home, they are so nice and helpful. When we finally arrived I was so excited, and I guess it was contagious, my aunt left the hospital a bit afraid, and in our ride there, I told her all about it… and pointed out the amazing way there… it was an amazing way indeed!!! We could see the Mediterranean from there. We walked there in a wheelchair in time for lunch. I had no idea that visitors were not allowed to stay for lunch… and without any doubts, I just sat with her and her two companions at the table. I could feel everyone’s eyes on us. I could not bring myself to leave her alone, so I stayed with her, and we installed all her things together. That afternoon, I walked home, took me almost two hours… I needed to breath.
I had not bought a ticket to go home, I stayed with her for five additional days, bought the ticket the day before I left. I could not bring myself to leave her. I visited her everyday, making sure she was strong enough; day by day she came back to life. She was so thankful and happy; she loved the food, and did not even mind having a roommate. She realised how much she needed the company and to be taken care of.
And as I saw her happiness my thoughts were – how do we make sure she enjoys this wonderful place until the last day of her life- My daily conversations with my sister gave me clarity and support, as well another mind to think what to do next. She had enough to live there for a while, but certainly not until her last days… So the prospect of selling or renting her apartment became a viable alternative to secure her future. The apartment was in living conditions, but not to be rented. I spoke with a few real state agents, and those conversations opened for me the perspective of turning it into a vacation rental. But I was too overwhelmed to even think of where to start.
Before I left, we had a long conversation with my aunt in the garden, it was December already, and it was so nice and warm. I left directly to the airport, feeling my heart in my chest, knowing she was going to be fine, but at the same time so sad… and aware that the only way to make her happy was to make feel secure, telling her that we will always take care of her… and we will. So I locked her apartment and left, cried in the train all the way to the airport… so many mixed feelings…relived to go back… my family waiting for me to start Christmas preparations. And as I write these words, and look back, I feel that same pressure in my chest as when I left.
I did not rent a car while I was there, so I was walking everywhere, without my sister in the USA, my iPhone, earphones and Spotify… I would have not survived. I bought a round trip ticket to go back in February… not knowing that I would be there sooner, as I arrived on the 1st of January together with my sister…
And the adventure continues…