Fred: Part II, on what we can do

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I have some news about Fred.

After my column about Milton-Freewater's resident ran two weeks ago, I received a call from Lana.

You'll recall I explained I've been writing about Fred since he was my neighbor a decade ago. Along with others, I've worried about how this mentally-ill man is making it in our little community. I've wondered in writing what we can do to improve Fred's life.

Lana takes care of Fred, she said, as much as he will let her. A registered nurse by training, Lana runs an adult family home here in my town.

She knows all the issues Fred has, including some I was unaware of. And Lana would like us to see the big picture that is Fred and others who are mentally ill in our community.

Let's get started.

Fred served in Vietnam. He was discharged from the military, however, when his schizophrenia bloomed as he aged into young adulthood.

Since then, his care has been managed by the VA and a host of caregivers like Lana.

In the 1970s, she explained, lawmakers and the public agreed that people like Fred did not deserve or need to be locked away. Institutions were closed and patients doled out to cities and towns. Some were able to live with family, but a large majority went into a foster care system for disabled adults.

Sometimes that plan worked very well. Programs were developed to help the Freds be as independent as possible and still get all the help they needed.

In Milton-Freewater, of course, we live in the "other" Oregon. As a rule, we don't get the programs or the resources or the legislative love. Just like other rural towns far from the state's capitol.

But we have still get Fred. And others.

"We, as a community, take care of them the rest of their lives," Lana said.

Or maybe not. As Fred ages, Lana sees signs he is struggling more and more. While her care provides hot meals, cleansing showers and a warm bed, Fred would just as soon forego those comforts, she said.

"We wash his clothes every day. He loves army coats and they all look the same. We wash one every day."

Fred refuses, for the most part, to get his hair cut or take a shower when he needs it. Which is often.

Sometimes he simply won't eat the food she makes, Lana said.

"My kitchen is never locked. Sometimes he comes home and doesn't want to eat."

It happens after he's been fed by some kind-hearted resident or merchant, but maybe not always with the right nutrition for his needs.

Most notable is the free coffee Fred gets -- too much caffeine messes things up.

"It's a form of self-medication," the nurse explained. "I can't give him more medication and I can't stop him from getting coffee."

And when someone gives him a beer? That's the worst for his prescription management.

Lana doles out a few dollars a day and pack of smokes, then Fred is out the door to merge into his community. There, wherever he chooses, Fred will panhandle and read and smoke. He will sometimes wet himself, even though Lana has mapped out every bathroom in the community for him.

He also cuts his clothes sometimes, in an effort to get sympathy, which equals handouts, Lana said. As well, she believes he resists hair cuts for the same reason.

"The whole haircut thing, that is a trip. That is really difficult. Sometimes I bribe him with cigarettes."

In cold weather, though, Fred's longer hair is an asset, "since he won't wear a hood and he won't wear a hat."

Lana gets that Fred looks, smells and acts a mess ... like he isn't cared for. Officials have shown up at her door and been shocked at Fred's good accommodations, she said.

Everything he needs, including a plethora of books, is there in his country home, where Fred has assured Lana he wants to be, even on the day he stole her wallet, she told me.

"I like (Fred). Otherwise he wouldn't be here."

What Lana can't, and won't, do is curtail Fred's independence. More than reading material, food, clean clothes and companionship, Fred wants his freedom, she said. "It's what all of us want."

Someday, who knows when, the town won't be able to have Fred here, Lana feels. The people who call the police to complain will grow in number as his behaviors garner more negative attention. His safety margin will narrow.

In the meantime, Fred can stay safe if this community will continue to accept the burden ... the awesome responsibility ... of caring for this man. Which, Lana pointed out, we've been doing a great job of.

So how can we help Fred, I asked her. "Really help him?"

She was ready.

"Talk to him. Don't be afraid, he's not harmful. On a general basis, he enjoys people."

Lana would like people to tell Fred to go home when they see him in unhappy situations.

"Tell him to "Go home and change your pants. Go home and put on shoes.'"

Giving Fred money is not always the answer, she added. "Money is not his best friend. He comes home with pot."

Should we give him food? There is no good answer to that, she said. w

"His only interest in life is coffee and cigarettes. If someone hands him something, he might see it as a gift and eat more."

Or, conversely, perhaps end up eating even less well than he does now.

It comes down to this, Lana decided.

It's not so much about meeting Fred's need as it is feeding our own instinct to show compassion.

"It does all of us good to give to someone else. It's a gift, whether they use it or not," Lana pointed out.

I guess I would add this. Showing Fred -- every single Fred you come across -- sincere respect and compassion is the most powerful gift ever. Needs no refrigeration, no storage, no cash. And the only way it can grow is by division. That's math even I can add up.

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