Laughter Trumps Tears

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.”

 

THE POTEET FAMILY:
LEARNING LESSONS FROM GRANDMA

Humor lightens life as well for the Poteet family in Virginia Beach. Pamula and Scott Poteet bought their home because the floor plan enabled them to create a ground-floor suite for her mother, Paulina Baisden. Paulina, 82 and a widow, moved from her home in Huntington, W.V. to live with the Poteets nine years ago, and early symptoms of Alzheimer’s and a few nasty falls convinced the couple that remaining in their former two-story house would be hazardous.

“We moved a whole lot of walls around,” Pamula says about the creation of Paulina’s own comfortable living room and bedroom with bath. A short flight of “shuffle steps” leads to the main level of the house and the busy lives of Pamula, Scott, their three sons and a black dachshund named Molly.

When the family activity gets overwhelming Paulina and Molly retreat to her suite. Frederick, 14, remembers his grandmother caring for him when he was much younger.

Now he helps care for her.

“I’ve learned what it’s like to help take care of someone who’s not always in their right mind,” he says. “When I babysit for my brothers I have to watch her too. If a doorbell rings on the TV, she goes right to the front door. We just can’t leave her alone. But there are a lot of good things. I like being that close to family, and when she was with us at Disney World we got to go to the head of every line.”

Franklin, 11, learned to help Paulina up and down the stairs and to ignore the odd sandwich combinations she would make for his school lunch. “I make my own sandwiches now,” he says. “She’s a very quiet person who doesn’t yell. You just have to go along with what she says, and by fourth grade I was used to that. When we’re in the car she points out little things we might not notice, and from her I’ve learned how to talk to anyone.”

“She’s fun,” Marshall, 7, says. “And she likes it when I go watch television with her.” 

Marshall was the one who came home from school to discover his grandmother had invited in some door-to-door meat salesmen, and there were meat samples all over the house.

“People will take advantage,” Pamula says.

Now while she’s at work at Either Ore Jewelers, Paulina goes to an adult day care in King’s Grant. “She was perfectly able to be on her own when we first moved here, but then we realized she was seeking out the neighbors because she didn’t want to be alone so now we never leave her alone, “Pamula says. “Even though I was skeptical at first about a day care they do an excellent job. Senior services collects her in the morning, and Scott brings her home in the afternoon.”

“When they go to work, so do I,” Paulina tells us.

One of the challenges the Poteets face is a narrowing of their social life and a scarcity of respite care.

“There is a real lack of respite care for more than a few hours,” Pamula says.

“They all want permanent, long-term jobs, but we have cousins and friends who help out.”

Scott Poteet is glad to have his mother-in-law live with them. “We thought it was the right thing to do and a good experience for the boys, an advantage I didn’t have growing up. The best part of Paulina being here is her interaction with the boys and all of us. It’s not always easy and doesn’t always go the way we want but that’s family.”

“You have to have a sense of humor,” Pamula says. “You can choose to laugh."

 

THE JURKOWSKI FAMILY:
FINDING SAFETY FOR DAD

Dealing with older relatives was easier in the 1960s when most families were multi-generational,” Paul Jurkowski, 57, tells us. “I grew up in Springfield, Mass., where people lived in multi-family homes.

"My grandmother owned our house and lived on the first floor while we lived on the second floor." 

When Jurkowski and his wife, Joyce, retired from careers that had taken them around the world they settled in Norfolk, but his father, Chester Jurkowski, was still home in Massachusetts, in his 80s, widowed, no longer driving and living alone. On a visit back to Massachusetts, Paul found him on a ladder, cleaning the gutters and explaining, “At my age you gotta keep active.”

It was a defining moment for Paul, who knew they had to find a safer living situation for Chester. He also knew that leaving would be a wrench for his father, who had been born and raised on a Southampton, Mass. farm, the ninth of 13 children. After a stint in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Chester returned to Springfield to work as a toolmaker and eventually a draftsman, marry and raise three sons.

It was also where he honed his artistic talent, painting and drawing throughout his life and exhibiting and selling his work often.

Paul pulls out an impressive stash of sketches and paintings to show us, a testimony to Chester’s faded talent.

His landscapes, portraits and still lifes date to the 1930s but are all tucked away now. He hasn’t painted in the last six years. Paul remembers lengthy discussions and arguments before Chester moved, “Kicking and screaming from Massachusetts,” Paul says, to his own apartment in Norfolk, just five miles from them. Chester gave the move a three-month trial and then stayed for two years.

“I like it here—the climate is good year round,” Chester tells us. But as Chester’s memory continued to fail, Paul’s worries grew. “We worried that he was vulnerable living alone, and he had a couple falls,” he says. “So we decided it was time for him to move somewhere that had housekeeping and where the staff could supervise his meds. My father never wanted to be a burden on his kids so he saved and still has a reserve that enables him to live comfortably.”

They got references from the Alzheimer’s Association and looked on line for places with a memory unit and where he would have at least two rooms and a kitchenette. Paul, one of his brothers and their wives toured seven different locations before they found Pacifica Senior Living in Virginia Beach. They liked the feel of it and the smaller size was appealing.

“It has everything I need and good food,” Chester, now 91, agrees. “I am comfortable here.”

But the move still wasn’t easy.

“We always made Dad understand that if he didn’t like a place he could move,” Paul says. “The first three months in Norfolk and even here he’d call me five times a day and say, ‘I don’t want to be here. You said I could come home if I wanted to. I want to.’”

“One time I came in, and he had his suitcase packed and ready to go, “Paul says. “I still have trouble talking about it.”

“But he’s safe here, and that’s most important,” Joyce adds. “We’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff.”

 

Proposing a Plan

Talking To Older Relatives About Long-Term Care

According to Fran Anderson, director of The Center for Aging with Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, talking with elderly relatives about plans for their care before the need arises enables the family to be clear about the older adult’s preferences and define a plan that all can work toward. The plan should include legal decisions such as advance directives, durable power of attorney, etc.

More of us may be facing these challenges as since Anderson points out that people are living longer, and the percentage of seniors is growing. In the year 2025 the average life expectancy is projected to be 86 years of age and more than 24 percent of U.S. citizens will be 60 or older. These changes mean that there will continue to be an increased number of aging relatives, especially in the older categories of 80-plus years.

Families used to live in close proximately to each other. Now it is not unusual to have adult children living across the country from their aging parent. Instead of providing the care needed themselves, these adult children need to find and pay for the support their parent needs to live independently.

Another factor is the decreased availability of funding for people who cannot afford to pay for nursing home placement. This means that relatives often become responsible for providing the assistance their older adult family member needs.

Senior Services offers services designed to help seniors live with choice and dignity, including care coordination, wellness programs, home delivered meals, transportation to medical appointments and senior centers, benefits counseling and an ombudsman program to investigate and mediate complaints from residents of facilities and advocate for residents’ rights. 

Anderson recommends the following websites for resource information: www. ssseva.org, www.EasyAccess.Virginia.gov, www.ElderLocator.gov and The National Council on Aging at www.ncoa.org.

For more help and information, look for Hampton Roads Magazine’s continuing column on caring for aging relatives beginning with our February issue.

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