Three sisters learn to be equal partners in their caring for their mother
Photography by Fran Collin
Take three sisters, each with a family and demanding career, add the burden of caring for a parent with a debilitating illness, and you have the recipe for sibling conflict. But Phyllis Michelson of East Brunswick, New Jersey, was determined that this traumatic time wouldn’t undermine her relationship with her sisters.
Life for all of them changed abruptly almost two years ago when their 85-year-old widowed mother, Bea, had a massive stroke. An active woman with no history of heart trouble, she’d gone into the hospital for the first of two knee replacements. No one expected the comparatively routine operation to be complicated by Bea’s osteoporosis. The surgery took much longer than anticipated and it took Bea longer than expected to come out of the anesthesia. Her heartbeat became irregular. The doctors managed to stabilize her during the next few days. But a sudden stroke totally paralyzed her right side and left her unable to speak. “The doctors didn’t expect my mother to survive,” says Phyllis.
Bea had lengthy stays in Rusk Institute in Manhattan and in the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Westchester. Phyllis says, “She can now count to ten, but it’s taken months of therapy.”
With Bea’s medical benefits running out, the family had to decide what would be practical and doable. The family looked into assisted living facilities, but Phyllis says, “Mother wanted to be home.”
An aunt recommended a woman who was willing to live with Bea, with the one difficulty being that she wouldn’t be there on Sundays. The sisters’ next hurdle was to find a way to cover that day. Since Phyllis, who is the oldest of the sisters, is also closest geographically, she says frankly, “I was apprehensive that the burden would be on me.” (Her sister Judy lives in Boston, while the youngest, Donna, is in Manhattan.)
In order to share the responsibility equally, Phyllis suggested they take turns staying with their mother on Sundays. This was easier to propose than to work out since all of the sisters have time-consuming careers. Phyllis is a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry throughout northern New Jersey, Donna holds an executive level position with a major legal organization and Judy is a physician specializing in international aids research with a heavy travel schedule. Donna was so busy she initially didn’t see how she could take on anything more. It would be better, Donna suggested, to hire someone to stay with their mother on Sundays. Phyllis says she made her sister aware that the funds simply weren’t there and that she personally couldn’t chip in any additional money. Also, she’d already learned, it would be hard to find someone willing to work just one day a week.
Donna agreed to share Sundays, but an even more formidable obstacle was Judy’s schedule. Still, she said she’d do “anything” to help. Her sisters would just have to let her know the dates far enough in advance to plan her travel agenda around them.
Phyllis, Judy and Donna now develop schedules six months ahead, specifying which Sundays each sister is responsible for. “We try to avoid having anyone do it two weeks in a row,” Phyllis says. Since for Judy it means a long drive to and from Boston, she decided to arrive on Saturday nights.“It turned out one time was Judy’s birthday,” Phyllis says, “and I felt bad about that.”
Bea’s three daughters have faithfully adhered to the schedule for more than a year and a half and have adjusted their personal lives, including holidays and vacations, to this timetable. Whoever is with Bea plans a day that will boost her spirits. Before her stroke she was an avid artist and museum-goer. Initially, Donna tried driving Bea to Manhattan to visit the Metropolitan Museum.
But this involved an hour of travel each way, plus Donna’s trips to and from her own home, and she found it too exhausting. Instead she now takes Bea to another favorite, and much closer spot, the local recreation center. It has a pool and Bea can swim or work out on the water treadmill. “Mother’s always loved to swim,” Phyllis says, “and it’s great therapy for her.”
The other great therapy rests on Bea’s lifelong love of painting. “The woman who lives with our mother drives her to the workshop where there’s a teacher she’d painted with for 20 years and who understands the situation,” Phyllis says. “At first Mom could only try to work with her left hand and it was frustrating, but now she’s gaining more mobility with her right hand.”
Bea’s artistic ability was a distinct help during the first months when she was in speech rehabilitation. Since she was unable to speak or even spell, the sisters hit on the idea of bringing her a sketch pad and having her draw images of what she wanted. Bea shook her head at the childish results, but the drawings let her communicate. One visitor who brought a bouquet was touched to see Bea painstakingly sketch the flowers as a thank you.
It’s very painful, Phyllis says, to see a woman who had been a bright articulate school teacher reduced to struggling for words. “Mother’s never been a crier, but sometimes when she tries to speak she gets so frustrated she cries. I hug her and cry with her. Then I get her involved in something else.”
Bea’s increasing dexterity has allowed her to use a sophisticated but easy-to-use “talking” keyboard. Since Bea loves to receive e-mail, Phyllis writes to her mother several times a week. “I pass on jokes I’ve gotten from the Internet and, of course, pictures of the kids.”
What sustains the sisters is knowing their mother appreciates their efforts. “For example, my niece was singing in a concert in Manhattan. We put Mom and the wheelchair in a car and drove her there. She had a wonderful time.”
Although the strain of caring for a parent commonly causes family rifts, Phyllis says that their mutual willingness to be flexible and pitch in together has enabled her sisters and herself to maintain their good relationships. “Actually,” she says proudly, “it’s brought us closer.”