Stories of the aging and their children

CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Dolores Munson, 85, in her Camden County home. She’s not sure she wants to stay there, but says “it's comforting to have all this stuff around me that's been part of me for so long.”
A quartet of parents and children describe their struggles with aging and the next step:
By Stacey Burling / Staff Writer, sburling@phillynews.com
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Sue Hunt and Catherine Basile
 
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Catherine Basile, 99, on the patio of the Delaware County rowhouse she and her husband bought almost 60 years ago. At right, Basile with her daughter Sue Hunt, 50.

Twenty years ago, Sue Hunt first suggested that her parents move to a smaller place nearer to hers. But her mother, now a widow just shy of 100 years old, is still in the Delaware County rowhouse she and her husband bought almost 60 years ago.

Catherine Basile, a sturdy woman who looks younger than her age, has worsening macular degeneration and doesn't hear well. She had to give up driving at 94. "That was a fight," Hunt said. "Everything is a fight." Basile had two falls last year. Neighbors called police following one of the falls after they heard her yelling for help.

That's when Hunt, a teacher who works and lives nearby, brought her mother's bed downstairs. She visits every day after school and has hired someone to check in at other times. She brings food. Because of her mother's sight, she does all the bills, banking, and shopping.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
"To me, she's now just a prisoner of her home," says Sue Hunt (left) of her mother Catherine Basile. "I'm familiar with it,” Basile says.

What the daughter fears: She is afraid she will find her mother crumpled at the bottom of the basement stairs. She worries that her mother is lonely. "To me, she's now just a prisoner of her home."

At 59, Hunt is already thinking about where she'll live when she's older. "I never want to do this to my kids," she said.

What the mother says: Basile admits she is lonely, but says she wants to die in her house. "I'm familiar with it and there's more walking space. If I go into a [nursing home], it would be one room with a bed, a chair."

She likes her privacy and worries about being on an upper floor - she fears heights - in a facility. It would have to be the first or second floor and, really, she doesn't like the first floor. "I like living alone because if I find any mistakes, I know they're mine."

She is sorry that she needs so much help from her daughter. She wanted to move when Hunt first suggested it, but her late husband - whom she cared for at home before his death eight years ago - didn't. Now, it just seems too hard.

"I'm sorry I didn't move, because it's harder when you're older," she said. "I got, like, 'I'll move tomorrow.' Tomorrow never came."

Joan Smeraski and Dolores Munson
 
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Dolores Munson, 85, with her daughter Joan Smeraski, 62, in Munson’s Camden County home. Smeraski has been trying for four years to get her mother, a retired teacher, to move to an apartment that's closer to her Medford home.

Dolores Munson, 85, is not set on staying in her house in Camden County. She just can't decide to leave.

"She says, 'I made up my mind,' and then, two minutes later, she's made it up the opposite way," said her frustrated daughter, Joan Smeraski.

Smeraski, who lives a 40-minute drive away, has been trying for four years to get her mother, a retired teacher, to move to an apartment that's closer to her Medford home.

Twice widowed, Munson lives in the split-level house she and her first husband had built in 1959. She has memory problems, doesn't hear well, and walks with a cane, but still uses the stairs. She's fallen several times. Once an avid reader, she now watches CNN and movies. She still drives.

She keeps a little Christmas tree - her night light - up year-round in her living room and said she paid no mind to suggestions to take it down.

"I don't take orders," she said. "When you're a schoolteacher, you're not used to taking orders. You're giving them."

CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
“I am pretty much resigned to the fact that I will die here in this house, if they let me," says Dolores Munson.

What the daughter says: Smeraski, a 62-year-old speech pathologist, wishes her mother ate healthier food and got more exercise. She worries about falls, and car accidents. Her mother's physician asked Smeraski: "Why are you letting her drive? Why are you letting her live alone?"

What the mother says: She's worried about the driving, too. "I hate to give up driving the car, but I have too many people blowing their horns at me now," she said. "I drive slowly."

She knows she has memory problems, too. "I think the sad part about getting old is that, when you are losing your faculties, you know it."

Getting rid of her stuff seems overwhelming, and downsizing does not appeal to her. "It's hard to go from a house where I have a choice of five or six rooms and I can go into any of those rooms and there's memories there," she said.

"I think it's comforting to have all this stuff around me that's been part of me for so long, and I'm not afraid to die. So many people I've loved have passed over that there's more on the other side than this side. . . . I am pretty much resigned to the fact that I will die here in this house, if they let me."

How the daughter copes: She is trying to let go of her fears. "I'm working mostly on myself so I don't get agitated with her," she said.

"I am living in the present. Whatever happens, we will deal with it."

They have started talking about what they can change so Dolores can stay where she is.

Camille Merger and Bill Sullivan
STACEY BURLING / Staff
 
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Camille Merger, 51, has been pushing her father Bill Sullivan, 89, to move in with her and her husband or to an apartment nearer them.

Bill Sullivan, who just turned 89, has lived in a house he loves on Big Timber Creek in Westville, N.J., for more than 40 years. Years of flooding have taken an obvious toll. Sullivan, a retired mechanical engineer, has made minimal repairs. If the house falls before he does, so be it.

He is thin, but not emaciated. He's not as organized as he used to be, but he has a curious, retentive mind. He reads the newspaper each day and subscribes to Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Scientific American. He watches PBS and as many news programs as he can stomach. "I watch Fox News and I get so pissed off," he said.

He's got an oxygen machine for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but he won't use it. He doesn't use his inhalers, either. He won't do the strengthening exercises that a friend, worried about falls, suggested. He gets winded walking from his chair to the other side of the room. On a recent visit, his refrigerator attested to his diet: frozen dinners, ice cream, and Diet Coke. Some blueberries he got as a gift were untouched.

He's driving without incident and paying his own bills. He meets friends for breakfast once a week and is involved in a local nature group. Neighbors bring him his paper, mow his lawn, and shovel his snow.

One of his four children, Camille Merger, 51, has been pushing him to move in with her and her husband in Hamilton or to an apartment near them.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Bill Sullivan in his Westville, N.J., home. "I'm comfortable here. The house is kind of falling down, but I figure it will last longer than I will," he says.

What the daughter thinks: She's worried, and a little embarrassed, about the state of the house. "I feel like I'm partly responsible."

She cleans when he lets her, but she has to be careful. He was very upset when, one time, she threw out 10-year-old condiments in the refrigerator.

"Emotionally, I guess I just have an internal thing like I should be taking care of him. I'm 'should-ing' myself."

He and her mother divorced when she was 7. She saw him only occasionally. They're much closer now. "He's a great dad," she said.

"What I worry about is him dying alone. I worry about him having an accident and no one being there or him just not feeling well."

She suggested seeing a Realtor once. "That's when he was, like, 'Forget it.' He just put the kibosh on it, and all communication stopped."

What the father says: He thinks he can hold out another year or so. "I'm comfortable here. The house is kind of falling down, but I figure it will last longer than I will."

He doesn't want to live with any of his kids. "I've just got my own way of doing things, and I think I'd rather be alone right now."

He likes his friends and seeing the moon rise over the river through his living-room window.

He knows the kids are just trying to look out for him. He feels loved. He says he won't fight with Camille and her husband. "There's nothing they can do," he said. "They want me to move up there - but, if I don't want to, I'm the boss. It's my own destiny, for Pete's sake."

He's set aside money and instructed his children to carry his ashes to Paris and scatter them over the tombs of Voltaire and Descartes. If anyone asks where he is, they can say, "in the Pantheon."

Nicole Black and Josephine Bunch Williams
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Nicole Black, 46, with her mother Josephine Bunch Williams, 79. Williams was diagnosed with midstage Alzheimer's last year, but Black says she is in "complete denial" about it.

At 79, Josephine Bunch Williams looks youthful and healthy. She has retained her admirable social skills, but dementia has made it hard for her to answer questions.

In her younger years, she was "extremely, fiercely independent," daughter Nicole Black said. Williams was a single mom for most of Black's childhood, and worked as a reading specialist for the Philadelphia schools. She traveled alone. After she retired, she taught line-dancing classes.

She moved into a light- and art-filled condo near City Avenue 27 years ago.

Williams' body is in enviable shape, but Black started noticing changes in her mother's ability to think about five years ago.

First there were problems with finances. Black had to start handling the money. Then her mother started getting lost while driving. Black had to take away the keys, though she has left the car where her mother can see it. Williams was diagnosed with midstage Alzheimer's last year, but Black says she is in "complete denial" about it.

Black, who has two young children, earlier this year stepped down from a marketing job at Johnson & Johnson so she could spend more time with her mother and work in her husband's jewelry business.

She hired a cleaning lady to help her mother for a while, but Williams didn't think she needed help and didn't want anyone (other than Black) in her space.

"She was irate," Black said. "I couldn't outsource anything."

Black, 46, redecorated a spare bedroom in her home in North Wales, hoping her mother might move in. Williams doesn't even want to visit now.

So Black comes to her four times a week, driving her to appointments and restaurants. She brings food. She's also installed a camera that lets her see when her mother leaves the condo. She's told the doormen that her mother shouldn't leave the building. They've only had to call Black once, when Williams set off on foot for a car dealership in Ardmore.

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Josephine Bunch Williams in her Philadelphia condo with her 1959 graduation photo from Cheyney University. "This is my home," she says. "I'm not going anywhere."

What the mother says: Williams was hazy about her life history, and what she does to fill her time during her days alone. But she made it clear that she wants to stay in her condo.

"This is my home," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."

What the daughter says: Quitting her job has allowed her to be less stressed and that has calmed her mother as well. Black feels "a little bit of judgment" from people who ask if her mother is still in the condo, but thinks Williams might have more trouble if forced to move.

But if her mother starts wandering, fails to recognize her family, or develops hygiene issues, Black says she will override her wishes.

Because her mother's physical health is so good, she's not worried about a medical emergency. What does worry her is that, as soon she figures out how to help her mother, new problems crop up.

"I'm afraid of what is that next thing," she said.

 

sburling@phillynews.com

215-854-4944

@StaceyABurling

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