A little tenderness 

Jesus (Jesse) Alderete and Hibaq Ismail
Emerald Crest workers Jesus (Jesse) Alderete and Hibaq Ismail pose for a photo at the memory care community in Burnsville. Photo by Dave Nimmer

I know we’ve all had the same fear — stuck in a nursing home or memory-care place, sitting alone, chin on our chest, with no one to help us, offer a kind word or a loving touch. 

Well, my fears have been somewhat allayed by my visits to Jim Klobuchar (yes, Amy Klobuchar’s father), an old newspaper friend and colleague now at Emerald Crest Memory Care in Burnsville. 

What I’ve seen is caregivers — half of whom, it appears, are immigrants — who are consistently careful, gentle and helpful, not only to Klobuchar, but to all the residents of his “cottage.” 

They all need a lot of help: to move, to eat, to dress, to get up and simply get through the day. 

Those attending to their needs are, in my opinion, worth $60 an hour. The national average is a little more than $12 for work of this kind. I’m not sure I could do what they do — for any amount of money.

One of them is Hibaq Ismail, a 29-year-old mother of four who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. She’s worked at Emerald Crest since September and now has the title of “life enrichment coach.” She leads the daily activities, which include exercising the body, talking about the news of the day and singing old songs that everyone knows. She’s learned the words to Auld Lang Syne, Home on the Range and George M. Cohan’s Over There. 

“I have lived all my life with elders,” Ismail said. “I treat them like I’d like to be treated. I always want them to feel they have their dignity. You know, Jim is still here. He’s still in there. He talks about climbing mountains, stories he’s written — and going to write — and growing up on the Iron Range. He’s helped me learn something about Minnesota.”

What I learned about Klobuchar in the newsroom back in the day was he did not suffer fools and wouldn’t accept ultimatums. What I observed about Jim at his cottage is that he quickly takes a helping hand and follows gentle instructions. His trust and respect are obvious.

“I build a relationship with these elders,” said Jesus (Jesse) Alderete, 31, who’s worked as a resident coordinator at Emerald Crest since last March. Jesse, born in Robbinsdale, is the son of a native Mexican and considers himself “Hispanic/American.”

“I love what I do,” Alderete said. “I think I make a difference in people’s lives. I can get them a glass of water. I can get them up, get ‘em changed, talk to them and listen to their stories. You have to open your eyes and your heart to do this. After a while, you tend to appreciate life more.” 

Those at Augustana’s Emerald Crest appreciate Alderete enough to make him a mentor to other caregivers. 

Although precise figures are hard to come by, at least a third of all caregivers around the country are immigrants and, in states where populations are older, that percentage may exceed 40%. 

Some of us will spend our last days in a facility and the likelihood is we’ll be cared for by those for whom English is a second language, the same group of folks we choose to gut our turkeys, pick our strawberries and clean our toilets. 

Based on what I’ve seen, we’ll be all right. Perhaps the pain and anguish that’s sent people fleeing to America is now reflected in the empathy and sympathy they have for others who struggle. 

Listen to Jim Klobuchar: “They are good to me,” he said softly. Then he raised his voice. “And they are damned good for me.” 

Every morning they make sure he has a copy of the Star Tribune at his breakfast table. 

Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].