Adoption Isn't Just for Children: Joining a Family Is a Great Option for the Lonely and Elderly

Recently a family of three moved in with Jeanine Wais-Sullivan, 70, when they lost their house in Richmond, Calif. Widowed two years ago after 35 years of marriage, Wais says the new living arrangement has helped her feel less alone and it allows her to help a struggling family who has become her own.  Wais spoke with New America Media writer, Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen.


San Francisco -- My husband passed away two years ago -- we were married 35 years. It was after he stopped smoking and drinking that he had a heart attack. Before he died, he was in the hospital for a month and a half suffering from diabetes, congestive heart failure, and low blood pressure.

Soon after his death, I found an opportunity to gain a new family by helping one: Lidia Gomez Ramirez, her husband, Pedro Ramirez, and their son, Johnny, moved in with me in December 2007.

I offered the family my home after they lost their own. They were going to stay with me until they got back on their feet, but they haven't left.

Lidia, 46, is from Guatemala, her husband is from El Salvador, and Johnny, 13, was born here. They live on the second floor of my house. I live on the first floor. They don't pay rent -- just the utilities.

When I tell people about my housing arrangement, they are either jealous or they think that I am crazy.

But what's the point of living in an empty place? Once you know a person's character, it's not crazy to let them into your house. And it's nice to have someone upstairs.

Not many people can do what I'm doing--not many people have that much space.

When they first moved in with all their stuff, I thought "what have I gotten into?" But I'm happy now. Lidia is like my adopted daughter and Johnny is my adopted grandson. I like to cook, but I don't like cooking for one person. Now I have a family to cook for.

I let them come because they didn't have any place to go. I would have felt selfish if I hadn't proposed that they come live with me. I knew her, so it wasn't like I was housing strangers. I also felt bad for the little boy--all the time they lived in Richmond he was still going to school in San Francisco and commuted everyday on BART.

I first met Lydia when I hired her to take care of an older gentleman, a friend of mine, who lived on Gough Street near the Marina. He had Alzheimer's and needed help. I met her through his neighbor. He told me about his friend Lidia.

"I know a person that I can vouch for. She's neat, she can cook, and she gets along well with elderly people," he told me.

Since I was in charge of my friend's finances I would write the checks for her. That's how I met Lidia. My friend was very happy with her.

Then she and her husband bought a house in Richmond in 2004 for $500,000. But now the house is underwater and only worth $100,000. They didn't put a down payment on the house and got into financial trouble: Lidia got sick and Pedro lost his job. He was working in real estate, but nothing is going on in real estate now. He is getting his certificate for life insurance. She still has many health problems.

I always have been ready for an adventure. I was a teacher for 34 years in the Oakland Unified School District. I loved the kids and their different temperaments. It's very unpredictable when you are teaching. You make a plan, but you have to be very flexible. That's why I loved it--new adventures and flexibility.

Sometimes I feel like I'm 100 years old, the following day I feel like I'm 20. If you don't do anything you feel older, so you have to keep active. I'm not into TV but I'm into the Internet where you learn about Egyptian history and Greek history.

Travel also makes me feel young. I took Johnny to Disneyland for seven days when he was 12, and we walked through the amusement park everyday. I need to keep moving. If I have an activity to do, then I get up. Or else I will stay in bed or smoke.

I learn new things everyday. I try to believe in the present, not in the past. I like to move on.

I arrived in the U.S. from France when I was 13. When I immigrated here I was disappointed because I thought I would see cowboys and Indians. But the first thing I saw was my aunt crying. She said I was so skinny.

All my family is back in France. I'm so used to being here that it would be hard for me to move back to France. And I'm not alone here because I have been blessed with a new family. It's a very busy life.

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