Mother and daughter share exhausting role

January 16, 2009

Elvira Cordileone

Staff Reporter


Maria Vendramin is a proud, determined woman.

Despite her age, 72, and despite contending with muscular dystrophy, she will not countenance sending her husband of more than 45 years to a nursing home because of his Alzheimer's disease. She says she's looked at long-term care homes and hasn't liked what she's seen.

Signs of Giuseppe Vendramin's condition started showing up in 1999. Today, the 76-year-old is often confused, can no longer dress himself and has lost control of his bladder and bowels. But as long as he's at home and she's nearby, Maria says he's calm and contented.

"I want to look after him until I'm unable to do it," she vows. "It takes a lot out of me but I do it with heart."

Maria laces her English with a charming northern-Italian sibilance. The couple hails from the Veneto region. She emigrated to Canada in 1962 and settled in Kirkland Lake, where Giuseppe, who'd arrived earlier, toiled in coal mines for four years before they moved to Toronto.

Maria recalls the active social life they once had, and speaks sadly of how many former friends dropped out of their lives when his condition deepened.

Now they're tethered to the house they've lived in for decades and where they raised two daughters. Even the long walks they enjoyed together only a few years ago stopped after Maria developed the muscle-wasting disease. She has to use a walker now and can't keep up with his still-energetic pace.

Giuseppe, or Beppo as she calls him, is generally docile and happy, especially when he sings. But he demands Maria's constant attention. Like a child, he wants to interact with her, wants to show her things.

"I cannot do anything when he's here," Maria says. "If we're sitting in the living room nice and quiet, that's fine. But the moment I walk to the kitchen, he's up.

"I have no time for me, period. My kids yell at me all the time: `You should take time for yourself.' But how can I?" she asks.

The only alone-time, "a breathing space," as she calls it, comes during the 21 hours per week that support workers come to the house to look after Giuseppe. And Maria reluctantly accepts a few hours a week of housekeeping help.

She also has the unstinting support of her younger daughter, Dorina, 43, who has chosen to devote just about all of her spare time to helping out. In fact, Dorina relocated from her Yonge-Eglinton home to within 2 kilometres of her parent's bungalow in south Etobicoke, just to make herself more accessible. Her elder sister lives north of Guelph with her family.

Between a busy full-time job as a food company supply manager and this consuming family commitment, Dorina has little time to socialize. "It's brutal," she admits. "I said to my sister, `I'd like to have a life, too. I'd like to meet someone. I'd like to get married."

Dorina not only spends many evenings with her parents, she sometimes takes her Dad to her house to give her mother a break, or has them both over for dinner. In effect, she's the caregiver to her father's caregiver.

Maria admits she's found the past few years hard, and knows things will not get easier. But she fears sending her husband to a nursing home would be the end of him.

She believes the only way her husband could thrive in a nursing home would be to have his own attendant, which she knows isn't possible. Without individual attention and away from his family, she fears agitation would make him difficult to manage. "They'd have to drug him," she says.

So, for now, Giuseppe Vendramin isn't going anywhere.