Laughter Trumps Tears

Caring For Aging Relatives Can Be A Challenge, But The Following Families Tell Us That Humor Lightens Life. Here They Share Their Stories Of Love, Respect And Lessons Learned.



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Photos by John H. Sheally II

Laughter trumps tears in facing the challenges of aging, according to sisters Bernice Maloney, 89, and Dorothy Armistead, 92. Along with Maloney’s son, Ed “Pete” Maloney, they laugh a lot as they describe the life the trio shares in the spacious East Suffolk home Bernice and her husband built 30 years ago.

They are the first of three families that photographer John Sheally and I spent time with, learning how they balance the needs of aging parents with a variety of family dynamics—and usually with a sense of humor.

Bernice and Dorothy are daughters of the Benn family, renowned for its legacy of educators in Suffolk. Both retired teachers and widows, they grudgingly admit age has slowed them down—just a bit. Dorothy reluctantly stopped driving when she was forced to use a walker and her vision was failing. 

Bernice, who has congestive heart failure and diabetes and is dependent on oxygen, finally left teaching a dozen years ago. She is still shocked when near 70-year-olds mention that they were her students.

Pete Maloney, 65, is a Vietnam veteran and juvenile probation officer with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Norfolk. 

“Once upon a time I had a life,” he quips as he looks back to 1998 when he had divorced and was living in Norfolk. His stepfather had just died, and he worried about his mother living alone in Suffolk.

“There were a lot of kick-ins going on in the neighborhood, and I knew if I caught anyone doing that here I’d be in jail so I’d better move back in,” he says. “It’s been fun and games since then.”

“We eased up on him, and before he knew it he was taking care of both of us,” says Dorothy, who moved in shortly after Pete moved home. “Lord have mercy, we get along pretty well, and Pete brings us flowers.”

“And he cooks Sunday dinner and serves it to us, “Bernice adds. “We don’t have any bad times—we agree to disagree.” “In the African-American community you take care of your own where possible,” Pete says. “You keep family together and don’t rely on strangers. I count myself truly blessed to have them here. I grew up living with my grandmother and grandfather, and their house was a way-station for everyone. Every Sunday there would be a family get-together with lots of aunts and uncles. I remember listening to their stories of growing up on the farm. That family time meant getting a better understanding of family.”

But there are challenges now, he admits, with his mother and aunt.

“I try to make sure they are as comfortable as possible and enjoy the years they have, but getting them to understand that they can do a lot of things but not as much as they used to is a big challenge, “ he says. “One of them seems to get it better than the other, but I can’t say which.”

Before he leaves for work he sets out their medications—but they don’t always remember to take them.

“Then he fusses at us—threatens to leave us and go to Williamsburg—then we say, ‘Don’t leave, we’ll do better,’” Dorothy says with a laugh. He grins and tells them both to hush, cueing more happy cackles.

The women do what housekeeping they can and some of the cooking, but he fills in the gaps.

“Pete goes to work to get some rest. He takes good care of both of us,” Bernice says. “And he takes us on trips. The three of us flew to Arizona, and we all went to Memphis.”

“Keeping up with these two in an airport is like herding cats,” he says. “I almost left them in Arizona.”

Then there was the afternoon his office phone rang, and it was Bernice, barely able to choke out, “I can’t catch my breath. Should I call 911?” Pete laughs as he remembers saying, “If you can’t breathe, yes, call 911.” Then he called 911 and rushed to get home.

“And, of course, the Berkeley Bridge was up, so I called my cousin who didn’t answer, then called a friend who got her off in the ambulance to the hospital by the time I got home,” Pete says.

When he does manage an occasional three-day golf outing, he has a trusted friend check on the women regularly. The day-to-day responsibility for Pete is huge, but so is the reward.

“How many people get to be with two individuals who have spent their lives working with and for others?” he asks. “They have always been in education and are two local celebrities, who cannot go out of the house without being recognized.”

Their advice? Bernice says, “Learn to get along and respect each other.” Dot adds, “Practice give and take.” And to a chorus of laughs, Pete says, “Love deeply.” 

On a more serious note, he adds, “It’s not something you do unless you want to—you have to be committed to take away the burden.”

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