When Mary Jo's beloved Aunt Theresa fell and broke her hip this past March, it would set in motion a chain of events that threatened to tear a huge and close-knit family asunder.
It's typical for an accident to an elder to create tensions and resentments among family members. The blame comes easily.?Who's doing the lion's share of the caregiving? Whose fault was the accident? Who's not shouldering his or her load? Common problems, especially since there's rarely even a hand-shake agreement about the division of responsibility.
Theresa, 84, had never had children of her own. But her brother Joe had 10 kids, with six daughters including Mary Jo. The Rhode Island family was hard core Irish Catholic. ("Kennedy Catholic," as Mary Jo describes it.) Theresa treated those kids like they were her own.
Theresa lives alone —Oscar, her husband of 60 years passed away in 2009. Fiercely independent, she had refused to consider assisted living or, heaven forbid, having a stranger move into the house with her.
Instead, for protection, she wore one of those necklace-pendants with a call-for-help button. And the six sisters in Mary Jo's family, now all middle-aged, informally took on caregiving responsibilities. The three who lived close by visited daily, and took turns bringing her food and generally looking in on her.
But Theresa was alone in her house when she fell this past March. She was wearing her pendant, but forgot or was unable to press the "help" button. She lay on the floor for seven hours in agony before being found.
The fall created a flurry of concern and vows to keep a closer watch over Theresa, but pretty soon things went back to normal. Theresa had a hip replacement and moved back home.
Looking back today, the trouble all stems from something that should have been joyful — a trip to Ireland that the six sisters had been planning forever. It was to be the voyage of a lifetime. They'd each been saving up for the trip and dreaming about it for years.
Aunt Theresa had a big role in the excursion, even though she wouldn't be going. Over the past year, she'd spent countless hours with the girls poring over travel brochures and telling stories about her own glorious trip to the old family homestead in Connemara. As the departure date, May 8, grew closer, the anticipation was rising to a wonderful crescendo. But one week before they were to leave, Theresa woke up not feeling well.
The sisters all got on the phone to figure out what to do. Aside from the sisters, there were no caregiving plans in place for Theresa, and they worried that something terrible might happen while they were off gallivanting around Ireland. They'd taken out travel insurance, so, after some back and forth, they?cancelled the trip.
Then, wouldn't you know it, the very next day Theresa was on the mend. When she learned they'd cancelled on her account, she broke down in tears. "Not for me!" she cried. "You didn't cancel it for me!"
Clearly the grand voyage meant as much to her as it did to her nieces.
It was only a few days later that the recriminations started. Some now were saying they hadn't been listened to in the conference call. Others wondered aloud why the decision had been made so quickly. "Why didn't we even think about it over the weekend?" one asked.
The close-knit sisters, accustomed to frequent get-togethers for birthdays and holidays, now began to be uncomfortable around each other, their gatherings punctuated by awkward silences and frozen smiles. And there's no easy solution in sight. As of this writing, the bonds that join these strong, smart, energetic women are in serious danger of rupturing.
As painfully common as it is for the stresses of caregiving to create rifts in a family, it's impossible to anticipate the ways that the bad feelings leak out and threaten to poison previously sound relationships.
Here's hoping that Mary Jo and her sisters regain their common ground, work out their underlying problems and go back to being the best friends that they truly are underneath. And, let's also hope they work out a solid plan for Theresa's careone that doesn't entirely depend on them — so they can get on that airplane, soon!
Aging, as they say, is not for sissies. Nor is caregiving.
Distributed by the New York Times News Service.