Growing up in a large Italian Catholic family was something that shaped who I am today. It wasn’t just holidays and birthdays that we were together. We were in each other’s lives almost daily. Even with all the instability that I experienced moving from school to school and with a difficult home life, my extended family was the one consistent support system I had going for me.
My grandmother was the matriarch of the family. Her house was the gathering spot, and it was my true home. There was always something cooking, but her meatballs are where it was at. I have so many memories helping her with them around the kitchen table, adding all of her secret ingredients to the largest mixing bowl I have ever seen! There was always sweet tea in the fridge and something sweet to eat. At Christmas time… I promise, you have never seen a cookie spread like hers! There were special tables that she would set up with trays and tubs of anything you could want. She made them to share of course, with the family, the neighborhood, the church. She was famous for it! She lived to serve her family, and she did it with the most tender heart I have ever known. She did have an ornery side, and she knew it! You always knew when she was letting it out, because of her distinct giggle to say “I know I’m being bad”.
Of course having a large family often meant there was usually some kind of drama happening. My aunts and uncles didn’t have much patience for my grandmother. The past often came back to haunt us. Even though my grandfather passed away a year before I was born, the damage that he caused lived strong. I never met him, but I grew up hear many many stories of his brutality. I was always so in awe of my grandmother, that she could have lived a life with that man and still have so much joy in her heart. Her example of resilience is something that I will cherish forever! But not everyone in the family felt that way towards her. Many held resentment and anger, they felt smothered by her insistence of closeness to one another.
She eventually remarried which added a new dynamic to things, Charlie was the only grandfather figure I knew. He was often indifferent to everything and generally quiet unless he felt like the grandkids were doing something dangerous. He had his good points, he was very smart and witty. I remember one year he helped me build a solar oven for the science fair and I won an award for it! Pretty awesome for a kid who wasn’t used to positive recognition for school achievements.
When I was in high school, Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. At first it was just little things here and there that she would forget or would miss some details. Then she had some age regression and memory lapses, forgetting dates and some basic social skills. As the disease progressed she started having trouble with bigger things like cooking and driving. We all did our best to help her and we were making it work keeping her at home.
The summer after I graduated from high school, one of my aunts decided that she was the one that needed to act on the matter of Grandma’s care… to make sure things were handled “properly”. She had Power of Attorney documents created for Grandma and Charlie naming her their sole POA. By the way, she didn’t confront Charlie’s family to see if this was ok. They both signed the documents without question. I’m sure Grandma didn’t fully understand what she was signing, and it was her daughter, she trusted her. Charlie’s health was also declining from taking care of Grandma and he was tired, I’m sure it was somewhat of a relief to have some of the burden taken from him.
My mom was immediately suspicious of this, she didn’t like that it was done in a hush hush kind of way. She also never really got along with her sister so the fact that she was now in control of the family was hard for mom to swallow. There was a lot of bickering about this and created a bit of a rift in the family, but nothing that would tear us apart… yet. That fall my aunt had new wills made up for Grandma and Charlie. She added herself and her husband to Charlies will and also added her husband as an equal beneficiary to Grandma’s will. However, she didn’t add any of the other spouses to the will… a bit odd I would say. I’m not totally sure how she got away with that for Charlies will, if I were his kids I would have definitely questioned this and probably contested it. As for Grandma’s will, it slipped through rather easily, my other aunt was very trusting of her sister, and my mom was going through a pretty rough mental breakdown after a difficult surgery. Mom didn’t catch on until it was seemingly too late.
Right after Thanksgiving that year, Charlie began having severe heart issues. He had to have open heart surgery and my aunt arranged to have him stay at a nursing home that she worked for to recover. Two days before Christmas she arranged to have Grandma move into the same nursing home, selling the idea to Grandma that Charlie would have access to a better suite if they were there together. She told Grandma that it would be temporary until Charlie was ready to go home. Neither of them would ever return home.
We were all really upset that we weren’t able to have the traditional family Christmas at Grandma’s house… well maybe not everyone… but most of us. That was the first year that we had ever spent the holiday separately, it was heartbreaking.
At first Charlie seemed to be recovering well, things looked good for him. I’m not totally sure what happened but things took a turn for the worst and a little over 2 months after Christmas he was gone. I won’t out right accuse fowl play… but it was suspicious timing. After Charlie’s death my aunt started making some fairly large purchases. She bought a house and made significant upgrades to it, her whole family got new vehicles, they went on a vacation to Vegas and Disney World.
At this point mom was seething, and wanting the rest of the family to come together to do something. Well that didn’t work out as planned because my aunt was paying people off to keep them loyal to her. I know this is the case because she tried to win me over this way too. At Charlie’s memorial service she pulled me aside and offered to send me to school, buy me a car, and pay my rent, she told me that I wouldn’t have to worry about money again. As an 18-year-old with nothing and on the outs with my parents, this offer was appealing. But it felt dirty knowing what I knew. I thanked her for the offer but declined, that was the last conversation I ever had with her.
Grandma was always a very active woman, she took care of herself physically by walking 6 miles every day. After she was put into the nursing home she was obviously not able to move the way she once did, and her physical health started to become an issue. She started having issues with her blood sugar. Eventually requiring the nursing staff to use insulin injections to control it. As far as I know there is no way to prove this now, but you won’t convince me that something fishy wasn’t going on. Grandma was being given high amounts of insulin and wasn’t properly being monitored with her food intake. Would you like to take a guess, what happened?
She went into a diabetic coma. She was left alone for hours in this state. She was taken to the hospital, where the doctors were shocked that she was able to come out of it. But she didn’t escape some irreversible damage. Her speech patterns changed dramatically. This incident caused serious brain damage that limited her ability to speak. It was the last straw for mom. The legal battle was about to begin.
For the next 6 months mom was working with authorities and lawyers. She wanted to take over as POA for my grandmother and she also wanted my aunt to be held accountable for the pretty clear abuse that was taking place. Now I don’t know if anyone has experienced trying to hold someone accountable for elder abuse, but at least at that time it was quite the uphill battle. The amount of evidence needed for authorities to act seemed downright negligent. Since my aunt had full control over everything, there was little evidence that we could get our hands on to provide them. It truly felt like no one cared.
There was finally a hearing scheduled to contest the POA. Most of the family was on my aunt’s side at this time. Mom was standing alone against her family. Surprisingly my aunt agreed to give mom medical POA and allow her to make decisions for her care. However, she was unwilling to give up financial control… surprise surprise. Mom accepted these terms, she was obviously upset at how my aunt was handling things but she felt it was more important to make sure that Grandma was safe and well looked after.
It wasn’t long after that, mom chose to move Grandma to a new facility. She wasn’t comfortable keeping her in a place that almost killed her. Grandma was much less mobile after the coma and couldn’t really talk much, her regular attempts to break out stopped. Things were peaceful for a while. Then we started noticing her teeth were falling out. She was fitting for a pair of partial dentures. The weird thing was, every time mom would visit they were missing. She had them replaced 3 times and each time they were lost. Eventually mom decided to have them permanently implanted. This was when we realized something not on the level was happening. I will never forget that visit. When we walked into the room we knew something was not right. Grandma had a large cut on her lip and had large bruises on her face. When mom went to inspect a little further she looked inside her mouth and realized that the dentures had been what seemed to be forcefully removed and they were no were to be found. She ran out of the room to get a nurse. I stayed with Grandma, it was so hard seeing her like that. I started to cry, and she turned her attention to me and the only thing she was able to say was “I’m ok”. Well that made my heart sink, and I had to leave the room too. Conveniently, no one knew anything about the missing dentures or the damage done to Grandma’s face.
At this point mom was so paranoid about leaving her alone. She was convinced my aunt had something to do with it. Mom decided to move Grandma again. This time she moved her to a facility that was much closer to her instead of keeping grandma in her hometown where my aunt also resided. Mom felt that she would be able to provide better care for Grandma with her being geographically closer. Not surprising, the dentures were never ripped out of her mouth again once she was closer to mom. Because my aunt and mom were at odds, any payments that she needed for my grandmother were sent to my aunt’s lawyer instead of directly to her. She felt it was safer to have a third party be involved so if something were to happen again she would have witness. She began requesting reimbursements for the time spent with Grandma for her care, which my aunt denied.
Well that didn’t sit well with mom, she decided that she was going to be as spiteful as possible. She hired a professional caretaker. She figured if you weren’t willing to pay me a small wage to take care of our mother than I’ll have someone else do it for double the price. I’ll just drain the bank accounts as quickly as possible. Mom’s way of thinking was “I would rather all of us end up with nothing in the end than have another dime go to my sister”. It may have been a bit petty, but at least Grandma’s money was going toward her wellbeing and not spent on luxuries for other people. It was risky, Alzheimer’s is a long disease. She ran the risk of grandma running out of money before she passed. A risk she was willing to take because she knew Medicare and Medicaid would cover things if/when that happened.
I have to say mom did a pretty good job at draining the money, but still reserving it where she could. At the time of grandma’s passing there was less than $10,000 dollars left to divide between the beneficiaries. The funeral was… awful. We were all uncomfortable being in the same room and talking to people that we hated at this point. Grandma deserved so much better. It was clear from the very beginning of all this, that she was the only thing keeping us together. Now that she was truly gone, there was no saving the family that once was.
Alzheimer’s Disease is known as the long goodbye disease, and boy is that true! Watching your loved one slowly deteriorate until they are basically a vegetable is painful and scary. There is no known cure for this disease that is continuously raising in numbers. For my family, the slow death opened doors for abuse. Unfortunately our story isn’t uncommon, the majority of elder abuse cases are committed by close family members. This experience taught me how important open communication is with people who are close to you. It also taught me a tough lesson about who you are able to trust and being prepared as you age.