Aging Together is a months-long project between MLive Detroit, WDET 101.9FM Detroit and Model D Media that explores the issues of older adults in Detroit, Southeast Michigan and the rest of the state. As the first leader on the project, I researched, interviewed, followed, photographed, edited and produced a bulk of work for the project. The rest of the collaboration can be viewed on the Aging Together Tumblr. Below is my personal work from the summer 2014 project.
Beatrice and Hugh: A peek into the life of an aging Detroit couple
By Khalil AlHajal and Katie Bailey
DETROIT, MI — Hugh Ford feels his way through his meals, tapping his slender hands on the tray placed in front of him until they reach what he needs.
His weakening eyes and legs keep him confined to his recliner in the living room of the same Detroit home where he's lived for 38 years.
He spends his days watching, or listening to sports and news on TV, asking over and over for someone to turn on the lights, even when they've been on for hours, and occasionally reminiscing about years past.
Things could have been much worse for the 78-year-old, but someone saved him.
"People running around talking about 'A woman can't do this. A woman can't do that,'" said Ford. "I have seen plenty of women save a whole lot of men. Yes sir. In my lifetime, I have seen women save men. If he can't take care of it, she can. And everything'll be alright."
He stared ahead from his recliner as he made the comment, never glancing at his wife on their decades-old couch to his left.
But he was talking about her.
The 5-foot heroine
Beatrice Ford sits on her porch, reading and praying in the early morning light.
In a few hours, she'll hear her name called from the back bedroom of her east-side Detroit home and her work will begin.
Ford, 69, will walk slowly to retrieve her husband of 52 years from his bed. She'll wash him, change him, dress him, clean the mattress, set him in his recliner in the living room and hand him a mug of black coffee and a pack of mini-donuts.
She'll tie his shoes, turn on the TV, pour herself a cup of coffee and rest her bad knee, until her husband needs something else.
"I constantly keep an eye on him," Ford says."That's all. Same thing every day."
An aging community
The roof on the Ford's 73-year-old Chalmers Street roof is leaking. Many of their neighbors have abandoned their homes. They have to watch for squatters looking to hook into their water and power sources.
Crime rates are high. Grass is tall. Streetlights are few and far between. Transportation is difficult. Utility bills are substantial.
But Beatrice and Hugh Ford have no intention of leaving.
No nursing home or suburban condo would do.
"I'm not moving. I'm not moving," Beatrice Ford repeated. "When I move from here, I'll be going up to be with the Lord," she said, looking up and raising her hands toward the ceiling.
Their house is paid off. They have a few good neighbors left and a nearby church. There are shuttle services for doctor's appointments and daily Meals on Wheels deliveries.
They aren't going anywhere.
Ford has no use for a change of scenery.
"You can't run from it," she said. "You run from it, you run into something worse...
"The church went to New York about 10 years ago. And we stayed in a hotel and we went out on the terrace and there were big old rats running around - looked like cats. They have garbage everywhere. I've never seen rats look that big... Here, people know me. I have (neighborhood) kids (now) in their 50s who still know me and call me Mrs. Ford. I'm not moving."
Beatrice and Hugh Ford are two of about 83,000 people over age 65 in Detroit. And that number, unlike the count for every other age group in the city, is expected to rise in the coming years, by 42 percent over the next quarter-century as the baby boomer generation ages, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
The city is scratching and clawing its way to better transportation, street lighting and public safety, with quantifiable, if slow gains apparent since cutting debt obligations from its budget through bankruptcy.
But expanding senior services to accommodate the growing demographic will be a daunting task while facing a still-shrinking overall Detroit population.
A 2012 Detroit Area Agency on Aging study found that Detroit-area residents age 60-74 were dying at a rate 48 percent higher than their peers in the rest of the state.
Still, the Fords, like so many other seniors in the city, proudly stay put.
At lunchtime, Beatrice Ford warms a pre-cooked, delivered meal of macaroni, stewed tomatoes and green beans for her husband, doctoring it with hot sauce and sugar to suit his tastes.
She serves it to him on a red plastic tray and balances a lamp on a TV table to help him see.
She watches over him, sighing and coaxing him him to eat more than the few bites he's swallowed.
Hugh Ford, born in Mississippi in 1935, married Beatrice Ford and lured her to Detroit from Ohio in 1962.
She was a schoolteacher's assistant. He worked in sheet metal.
They retired on her modest pension and their Social Security benefits after about 40 years.
His wife, Hugh Ford said, saved him many times in the past from an addiction to whiskey.
And today, she saves him from a different kind of ailment.
Hugh Ford was diagnosed with dementia five years ago after his wife heard a thump in the middle of the night and found him lying naked on their living room floor.
"All day long it's, 'Turn that light on,'" she said. "The light's been on for hours, and he keeps asking and asking about it."
She spends her days watching him drop glaucoma medication into his eyes, making sure he's drinking water, and chastising him for pulling out his cigarettes as soon as he finishes a meal.
She also looks after their son, whose wife died two years ago, triggering his own battles with alcoholism, and a sassy granddaughter, who, in the teenager's own words, "has a bad attitude."
Only after tending to her family each day does she turn to her own medical needs, including knee rehabilitation and daily insulin shots.
"I did that to myself," she said about her diabetes. "I was eating too many cheesecakes."
Filling the refrigerator with appropriate food takes days of planning. Just getting to the grocery store can be a struggle.
The couple can't use the bus system to get around anymore. The walking is too burdensome on her bad knees and his shaky hips.
They don't own a car, and it wouldn't matter if they did. Beatrice Ford has never been able to drive.
"I don't drive," she said. "I did learn how to drive when I was 13. My uncle learned me in Ohio on a dirt road... I rolled on the dirt road and these people rolled passed and they turned around and looked and I turned around and looked at them and ran right into a ditch," she said, laughing.
"I haven't drove since. I've been frightened since. I was 13 years old and see I was supposed to keep my eye on the road."
"God gives me what I need"
Despite being virtually immobile and burdened by illness and monotonous caregiving, the Fords have trouble complaining about anything.
"All these co-pays," Beatrice Ford said when pressed for the hardest part about growing old. "I worked and worked and worked. I've got Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield and we've got all these co-pays... I paid into Medicare for almost 40 years. He paid into Medicare. I pay $104 a month and he pays $104 a month... plus we've got to pay co-pays."
But she quickly snapped back from her brief rant and switched to expressing gratitude for what she has.
"I'm not complaining about it because God has given me the money to pay for it," she said.
"That's what I'm displeased about, but I'm just thankful that I have what I do have, that God gives me what I need."
They miss the days before unkempt lots and illegal dumping grounds riddled their neighborhood.
"It seems like it's a different neighborhood than it was when we first moved here," said Hugh Ford."There's not too many people around here like there used to be."
They once had a lush vegetable garden with tomatoes, onions, beans and corn that took up most of their backyard.
But that's in the past.
"Can't do that no more,"Beatrice Ford said. "He's not able to do that no more and I know I'm not doing it. I got a tomato plant, I'm going to grow it on the porch, I guess."
They count on their son to watch over his father when Beatrice has an appointment, or a Sunday school class to teach, or to help Hugh down the porch steps when he needs to see a doctor.
Together they have eight kids, 22 grandchildren and another 20 great-grandchildren.
But mostly, they rely on each other for care and company.
"You can't live by yourself," said Hugh Ford. "It takes two. You can't do it by yourself.
"It all came out pretty good, I guess. Yes, indeed."
Each night, Beatrice Ford undresses her husband, tucks him into his adjustable bed, gives him a dose of cough medicine to help him sleep soundly and cleans up around the leather recliner he's been sitting in all day.
Often leaning on a broken broom handle to support her tired legs, she locks the doors, turns the lights off in the house and walks slowly to her own bedroom, praying over her husband and herself, and preparing for another day.
This story was co-written and edited by lead Aging Together reporter Khalil AlHajal and myself, Katie Bailey. Read more of Khalil's work here.
The faces and lives of Detroit's St. Patrick Senior Center
St. Patrick Senior Center has been serving seniors in the heart of Midtown Detroit since 1973. The largest senior-centered activity center in the area, St. Pat's offers a daily meal, programs such as hustle dancing, yoga and fitness classes, a health clinic and an advocacy center. Serving more than 2,000 seniors in Metro Detroit, St. Pat's has an open and accepting environment, drawing all kinds of people to the former Catholic school building on Parsons Street.
As a part of MLive Detroit's Aging Together project, the following photos show just some of the hundreds of different faces that stream through the center everyday. Each portrait sits next to the subjects' responses to a short questionnaire about their lives and experiences aging in Detroit.