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Facing twin tragedies: terminal illness and foreclosure

Renee C. Byer / Sacramento Bee

Luther Findley, 55, positions his wife Claire, 59, who suffers from ALS, with the help of a nurse's aid as she asks him to pat her back that is sore from being bedridden. He also placed a bandage on her tailbone to help with a bed sore. The quadriplegic depends on 24-hour care and wants to die in her home that was foreclosed on in March.

Luther and Claire Findley are confronting the difficult and painful realities brought on by terminal illness, and exacerbated by the economic crisis. Their plight and story was published in the Sacramento Bee on Dec. 18. Claire Findley was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in early 2007, and by the end of that year Luther Findley’s once successful construction company had gone out of business. The previous year, they had refinanced their home and taken out a home equity line of credit to help pay for Claire’s escalating medical costs. That was before she was diagnosed with the chronic disease and when they thought she would still get better and be able to return to work as a nursing assistant. The Sacramento Bee reports:

The Findleys lost their house to foreclosure in March because Luther, a 55-year-old contractor, hasn't worked since the end of 2007 – and because the income limits required for Claire to maintain her Medi-Cal coverage at no share of cost meant that he couldn't pursue new employment.

Their situation shows what can happen when a medical crisis meets the foreclosure crisis and the spiraling effects of the recession. As a result, they represent an especially desperate economic reality: bankrupt, facing terminal illness and, until recently, coping with the stress of possible homelessness. Read the full story.

Editor's note: Though the Findley's home was foreclosed in March, when contacted by the Sacramento Bee, Bank of America postponed their eviction until after Claire Findley's death.

Renee C. Byer / Sacramento Bee

Luther Findley, 55, tries to explain to the Bank of America via speaker phone that his wife wants to die in their house as he asks for an extension on his eviction from the house they have lived in since 1996. "My wife is a quadriplegic and I have no place to move her," he says. The voice on the other end says it doesn't look good but they will get back to him a few days later. The Findley's dual medical and financial crisis brought them to the brink of homelessness in what doctors say are Claire's final months of life. Barely able to speak Claire Findley wants to die at home. They lost the house to foreclosure in March of 2011, but Bank of America put their eviction on hold until his wife's death.

Sacramento Bee photographer Renée Byer and reporter Anita Creamer worked together on telling this story. Earlier this month, Byer had been scouting around the newsroom for a story that could illustrate the effect of the financial crisis on the middle class, when Creamer approached her about the Findley's situation. Byer immediately knew she wanted to be involved. “I’m from a middle class family. It has always been a huge storyline for me. I could easily be walking in these people’s shoes.” In 2009, Byer worked on documenting the broader impact of the recession in a photo essay on the “California economy crisis.” Since then, she had wanted to explore the same topic, but through a more intimate story.

Renee C. Byer / Sacramento Bee

Luther Findley, 55, carries Claire's fragile body back into her bedroom after bathing her in their foreclosed home. The quadriplegic who is in constant pain wants to die at home.

The delicate story required a sensitive approach. Byer tells msnbc.com:

The first time I went, I really just sat and listened to their story. For me, it is very important to understand the intricacies of what they are going through. I didn’t really want to make any photographs that day. I just wanted to see how they were feeling. How could I possibly help, instead of add more stress to their situation? What can bring awareness to this horrible situation?

Byer gained Luther’s trust after going on a long walk with him and his five pomeranians and border collie the next day. The dogs provide a small source of stress relief from his dying wife, but Luther also worries about their future. Even though Claire is barely able to speak, through her expressions Byer could sense that from the beginning Claire was very open to her presence.

Renee C. Byer / Sacramento Bee

Members of Carmichael Seventh Day Adventist church are helping Luther sort through all his things since his house has been foreclosed and he will be evicted after his wife Claire who suffers from ALS dies. Here he feeds his pomeranians and his border collie. The dogs help him with his depression and he says he is worried about their future after he is evicted.

Byer has covered a range of assignments for the Sacramento Bee, but this story stands apart. She had four visits with the Findleys, and recognizes that it was very difficult to not become emotionally involved in the story.

There was a moment where Claire had tears in her eyes as she was praying for the house. It is very hard not to feel that emotionally. It is hard to keep a dry eye. It is such an emotional toll that this couple is dealing with not only this crisis, on top of that their house is being foreclosed.

Renee C. Byer / Sacramento Bee

Luther Findley gazes over at his wife Claire as he sleeps most of the night on a massage table close by. "I'm blessed because I have you, " whispered Claire to her husband. Claire learned this week that her last wish to die in her modest Fair Oaks house where she and her husband Luther have lived since 1996, will be possible. The eviction that they have been so stressed about will happen after her death.

Through Luther and Claire Findley, Byer hopes to show the severity of the financial crisis, especially when combined with the bureaucratic limitations of the system that caused it. She hopes by raising attention to situations like theirs, change will come.

I’m really grateful for this family for opening up their hearts and letting me document them. There are thousands and thousands of families that are facing this same dilemma. Hopefully something will come of this and people in the United States will realize that this is a crisis.

Visit the Sacramento Bee's photo gallery for the complete selection of images of Luther and Claire Findley taken by Renée Byer.

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