When Gregor Collins began caring for noted Austrian Holocaust refugee Maria Altmann nearly five years ago, he did not expect his experiences to evolve into the most profound and intimate relationship of his life. The aspiring actor/producer also did not foresee a critically acclaimed memoir detailing their unique bond, or his involvement in A Good Day To Die– an upcoming feature film exploring end of life issues with a comedic perspective.
Now 37, Collins spoke to Life Matters Media about his relationship with Altmann and his caregiving experiences. His first book, ‘The Accidental Caregiver,” was published in 2012. Altmann died in 2011 at age 94 with complications associated with dementia. She is remembered for her successful legal campaign against the Government of Austria to reclaim five family-owned paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt; the paintings were stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
How did you become a caregiver for Maria Altmann?
I was never drawn to it. Actually, it was never something I considered doing. I was just living this selfish life in Los Angeles and pursuing acting pretty heavily. A good friend of mine called me and said, ‘I’m taking care of this woman from Austria and she’s awesome, you have to meet her.’ I sort of blew him off a bunch of times, but then he told me that the family really wanted another caregiver. I finally agreed to meet her, and my life changed right there. It was like the first time in my life I cared for somebody besides myself, really.
I was definitely not a perfect caregiver. I didn’t have any skills or know anything about medicine. All I had was a good heart, and she was unbelievably amazing. She brought the best out of me. I was hired as a caregiver, but I became her companion- someone she wanted to have around to talk and laugh with. I wanted to be there every day. She was like a mother, a grandmother, a friend, even a lover from another lifetime.
Los Angeles is a lonely place, so it was nice to talk with her about art, the weather– she satisfied me in a romantic way, like we wished we could have met 70 years ago. We just clicked, you know.
What was the most difficult part of caring for someone?
Because I really fell in love with her, it was difficult to see the aging. It is really difficult to see someone you love and know that they won’t be around. That’s the hardest part.
Whenever I got emotional around her, I would leave the room. There were many occasions she would say something so sweet to me. One time we were driving and she said to me, ‘You’re going to miss me. I’m going to miss you.’ I started crying out the window, and she never knew. Towards the end, I cried in front of her for the first time, and I felt guilty- like she would know she is going to leave soon. But she almost giggled at me because she thought it was so cute.
How did you interact with Maria when she was feeling ill?
She developed some dementia towards the end. When I met her a few days shy of her 92nd birthday, she was right on the ball. After the Klimt case, her oldest son tells me that she was sharp as a tack until 90. She would talk to reporters in Italian and French and German, and would really get the media laughing and on their toes. After the paintings came in, she felt like she could wipe her hands and just be an older woman. It was never close to the point where she couldn’t recognize me, but I could leave the room and come back- and she would think I was coming back for the first time.
Often times with Maria, I saw firsthand how exposure to love and youth were more powerful than medicine. Instances where she was in pain or not her usual effervescent self, I would play her an opera, or I would walk in the room with a smile. These little things brought more life and joy and love to her face and body. The notion of ‘love is more powerful than medicine,’ I stand by it.
Also, I read that when it comes to Alzheimer’s and dementia, all the top doctors and medical professionals agree that medicine is not the most powerful or effective means to fight them– keeping minds active and stimulated is. I felt that was part of my job to keep her mind scintillated, and I really believe this extended her life and kept her dementia at bay as long as humanly possible.
Why did you choose to write ‘The Accidental Caregiver’?
I kind of wrote it because I felt like it was one of the most important things I could do in my life. I needed to preserve her legacy and our relationship. I also wrote it because I was so emotional, and it was an intensity. It was just me alone in a room at night crying or laughing about the day. It was really touching and surprising when people started to connect with it. I never expected the response.
Learn more about A Good Day To Die