Wish Book

Friends have died or moved away, but 91-year-old widow won’t leave her aging home

On her last day being 90 years old, Olga Cleary introduces herself with a clipping from a novelty gift catalog.

“When I get old, I don’t want people thinking, ‘What a sweet little old lady,’ ” the clipping reads. “ ‘I want them saying, ‘Oh, crap! What is she up to now?’ ”

But the answer lately is not much.

After a fall a few years ago made her fearful another slip might put her in a nursing home, Cleary rarely leaves the North Miami house she has called home for nearly 70 years. She lives alone and depends on a small group of volunteers to help her take baths, bring her warm meals and perform heavy household tasks like taking out her trash.

All her close friends have died or moved away from her quiet neighborhood once filled with servicemen — like her late husband — and their wives who moved in after World War II.

She has no air conditioner in her aging home, making do with small fans in her bedroom and living room. Her kitchen window needs repairs after Hurricane Irma. Her home medical alert system has had problems since the storm, too.

But Cleary, despite a fragile build just shy of 5 feet tall, is iron-willed about staying put. She built her life in Miami here, raised her son here, tended to her dying husband here, Cleary says.

“I know this place,” she said. “I feel safe.”

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Cleary’s neighborhood, surrounded by similar low-roofed bungalows and dotted with diamond-shaped parks, used to be filled with people just like her.

She and her husband Don married in their early 20s after he was discharged from an Army stint in Virginia and Maryland, and bought their home in Miami in 1949 after they moved to be closer to his family.

Cleary, who had grown up in Pennsylvania and left her own family behind, said back then she had plenty of other young wives to be friends with while she kept house for her soldier-turned-photographer husband. When she wasn’t cooking or cleaning, she said, she would knit or crochet with other women, and they’d ask her to house-sit for them or watch their pets.

But in the decades after she raised their only son Mark and sent him off to college, Cleary noticed that slowly, people were starting to move away. The building of I-95 claimed several homes in the area, she said, and others moved to be closer to their own families or start some in new places.

“I mean, you see them and then you don't see them,” she said. “People started to come and go.”

It wasn’t until her 60s, when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, that Cleary’s life truly began to contract. She became his full-time caretaker, giving him baths and cooking his food, cutting his hair and organizing his hospital appointments.

“I didn’t worry about dates or times,” she said. “There were no dates or times, everything just happened day after day after day.”

Cleary also began collecting her own health problems: a pacemaker when she started having heart issues, thyroid problems, a fall that fractured her left wrist. In a little pocketbook in her purse, she kept track of both their medical appointments, from pacemaker checks to bone density tests, scrawled in unshakeable cursive.

When Don died in December 2003, Cleary — for the first time in her adult life — didn’t have someone to take care of. For several years, she stayed active on her own. She took the bus to get groceries and started going to exercise classes to make friends.

But as her 70s turned into her 80s, and her 80s slipped into her last decade of double-digit life, Cleary kept losing friends. More of her friends began passing away instead of moving away, and Cleary’s own medical checkups kept adding new complications: high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, a bout with skin cancer.

When she slipped and fell again trying to board the bus a few years ago, fracturing her hip, her world shrank even further. Now, she stays mostly indoors, afraid another fall might force her to give up her home.

The North Miami Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists a few hundred seniors in the area, first started helping the Clearys in the 1990s when Don was ill. In the last few years, it’s now Olga who has become the focus of their food deliveries, regular check-ins and social work.

Cleary’s days, once filled with trips outdoors, have shrunk down into the four walls of her home of 68 years. She’s too afraid to walk down the walkway of her home, afraid her feet might catch on a crack in the sidewalk and trip her. Her life revolves around a small army of volunteers who do for her what she for years did for others: grocery-shop, bathe, clean.

Three times a week, Claudia comes to help her shower. Grace brings her food. Margaret and Leo, volunteers with the North Miami Foundation, call a few times a week.

When volunteers aren’t around to help with her household tasks, she spends her solitary hours watching the television switched on default to on — “I like the noise” — or does puzzles on the mustard-yellow couch she’s had for decades.

Cleary’s predicament isn’t uncommon, said social worker Sandi Kumm, who has worked with the widow since 2014. The most common client of the foundation fits Cleary’s profile to a T: a widow in her 80s or 90s living alone and in need of some extra help.

Cleary “is a fiercely independent woman who wanted to do everything by herself,” she said. “She’s always been a giver and not a receiver. That makes it a bit difficult at times to allow us to give her the help she needs.”

Some of those challenges are simple — sending someone by to help move Cleary’s trash cans when the garbage is picked up. Others, like getting Cleary to accept hot meal deliveries instead of constantly eating frozen dinners, require more coaxing.

One thing Cleary won’t budge on is moving away from her home, though her son has asked her to consider moving closer to him near Cocoa Beach. It’s where she spent most of her adult life, she says. She’s not going anywhere.

Kumm’s hope is, in lieu of Cleary moving, to keep improving the house so it’s safer to live in. She wants to get Cleary an air conditioner, worried about the risk of dehydration that can come with the hot, muggy Miami summers. Cleary, who lives off a modest Social Security check that arrives each month, says even with an air conditioner, she’d be hard-pressed for the money to run it.

What Cleary really wants is the independence she used to have, she said. She wants to be able to drive again, walk around again without her walker and spend time with the friends who are no longer around. But she knows those days are gone.

Before her 91st birthday, she said, she doesn’t plan on doing anything special to mark the occasion. “I hope it’s my last,” she said.

How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@miamiherald.com. (The most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.