Receiving Help With Life's Chores Doesn't Mean Surrendering Dignity

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Composing a life is complicated. Some call it art when it's done well. But even for people with all of their abilities intact, it can be difficult. For the frail elderly, just sitting down to pay the bills is sometimes an overwhelming task.

Enter Wanda Sawyers. Her business is life services.

Life Services Inc. is a nonprofit organization that recently celebrated 15 years of service to the Los Angeles area. Sawyers, 77, is its founder and president. She created and developed the business to provide individual care to people who can no longer do everything for themselves.

The services cover a broad range. Some clients need transportation. Some need help managing assets or filing insurance claims.

"Every client is different," Sawyers said. "We sometimes are just needed to write letters or purchase clothing. We usually say to a client that we're going to plan the rest of the days of their life and ask what their expectations are."

The company, with a permanent staff of 11, serves 125 clients--"dead and alive," Sawyers said, because estates are part of the caseload. About 20 outside experts offer accounting, financial, legal and psychological services. A sliding income scale is used when clients are billed.

A frequently requested service is for help in finding an appropriate care facility that is close to relatives. Sawyers works closely with WISE Senior Services, St. John's Hospital, Santa Monica Hospital and various senior centers in a 30-mile radius of her Glendale office.

Sawyers is aware that a move to a nursing home or other care facility is usually a wrenching time for an elderly person and for the family, but she and her staff have developed techniques for taking much of the sting out of the transition.

"It's not sad at all," she said. "As we reminisce with someone and look at all the things they have done in the past, it helps them to realize how beneficial they have been to mankind. We help them to understand their value to themselves and to society. This in itself gives them a knowledge of their own transcendence, and this is as important as all the other care they receive."

Sawyers married late in life and is a widow. She has no children but has nieces and nephews who are devoted to her. She earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of Colorado and a law degree from Southwestern University of Law. She attended the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC and created the first senior citizens multipurpose center for the city of Los Angeles. She is also an elder of the North Hollywood First Presbyterian Church and is active in many church activities.

But there is also a definite political edge and an element of combativeness to this sweet, gray-haired lady with the irrepressible smile. The criticizes the power structure of government officials and special interests--including, she says, the American Assn. of Retired Persons--that makes decisions about older people without regard to their best interests. "I just wonder how long it will be before the elderly will recognize it," she said. "It wouldn't surprise me to see elderly march on Washington like they did during the Depression. I'll be there."

In the meantime, Sawyers hopes that Life Services will eventually become a model for the way elderly people are treated--all needs addressed under one umbrella while preserving a person's dignity.

The most important ingredient, Sawyers said, is trust. In 15 years she has not been sued, nor has any client reneged on financial responsibility. "It's a good-faith business," she said. "Even if in the process of taking care of a person their funds are depleted, the same level of care is given."

But who takes care of Sawyers? "I never worry about anyone taking care of me. In a few months I will move into a retirement home where all kinds of services are provided in case I need them. I'll have my own separate cottage. But I will continue to work because I don't have the sense not to. And one of these days I will paint."

The infinity symbol appears on the literature for Life Services. Sawyers said that is because she believes life is infinite, and the symbol is a reminder that serving and sharing to enhance the lives of others has infinite possibilities.

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