The promise is quietly kept. It's an unspoken one between a widower and his 106-year-old mother-in-law. As the promise endures, their little cottage is mostly quiet, slowing down to the gentlest of rhythms well before dark.
The promise originated years ago between Ed Rose and his wife, Lucille. They would take care of each other's aging parents if anything happened.
It's a promise being kept by between 30 and 40 million families in which adult children are caring for their parents. The number expands as quickly as the country ages. Those 85 and older are America's fastest-growing population. Typically, the promise is kept by a woman in the family. Ed Rose is the rare promise-keeping son-in-law.
Ed's parents passed away years ago, until there was only Lucille's widowed mother, Angelina Padula. In 1995, when she was 92, Angelina moved from Albany, N.Y., to live with them in Valrico.
Then Lucille died of cancer in 2003. The last big event Ed and Lucille shared was Angelina's 100th birthday. They rented a dining room at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Old friends flew down from New York. Ed says, "We partied all night."
After Lucille's death, Ed and Angelina moved to a cottage in Sun City Center, and have been together ever since. Nursing home care has never been an option.
Each of their years together has brought a series of adjustments. When Angelina was a spry 100, she liked to cook and help with housework. She's Italian-born, arrived in New York on a first-class ticket with a new Italian-American husband when she was 18. She was a homemaker all her life in Albany; her husband owned a chain of barbershops. She was a great cook.
But in the past three years, dementia has gradually caught up with her. She is now almost totally dependent on her son-in-law. Their evening conversations have diminished. She can understand him, but they stick to a very practiced route, not reliant on words. When it's time to eat, he guides her to the table by holding her hands. They dine quietly. She communicates her appreciation by smiling warmly. Things are intuited rather than expressed.
"If you live long enough," Ed says, "all those things fall by the wayside."
Ed, who is now 66 and semiretired, fits part-time work around her. His routine is unwavering. He wakes each day at 4:30. At 5, he walks for 3 miles. Then he works the crossword puzzle until 7:30, when he wakes Angelina. He helps her with the bathroom, dresses her, makes her oatmeal. At 7:30, he takes her to the Ruskin Senior Center. There are more than two dozen such centers in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. While Angelina is at the senior center, Ed cleans, does the shopping and sells insurance.
Ed picks up Angelina at 2:30, they watch a little TV, then he makes dinner. They share a glass of wine. By 6, he's helping her bathe and get ready for bed. She sleeps about 14 hours.
Weekends are hard. The senior center is closed. Ed has a daughter in Valrico whom they visit, but on weekends the two are mostly homebound. "It's hardest on her," Ed says.
At 106, Angelina is the oldest client at the Ruskin Senior Center. (They do have a volunteer who just turned 100 and still drives.) Ed Rose also holds unusual stature there, as the rare man taking care of a mother-in-law.
"We have many male caregivers," says Michelle Ingram, human services supervisor at the center. "But they're usually either spouses or sons. We don't see many sons-in-law."
Ingram says children who take care of their aging parents at home eventually reach a moment of truth — they can handle it, or they can't. "It's either you do it, or don't do it. It's sink or swim. Somehow many people find ways."
It's much the same for young couples learning to be parents. Caretaking doesn't always feel like sacrifice. The feeding and bathing become routine. Ed Rose says he doesn't feel heroic. About eight in 10 such caregivers agree with him, according to a USA Today poll.
Yet the day care that Angelina gets feels like a holiday for both her and her son-in-law.
The issue all along was the promise, Ed says. He simply promised his wife he would take care of her mother. He never set a time limit. Her longevity, her growing dependence, didn't alter the original promise.
"There are situations in life you can't completely plan for," Ingram says. "He made a commitment for as long as he can do it. Sometimes that takes more passion than patience."
It's 6 p.m. at the home of Ed Rose and Angelina Padula. He has just cleared the plates, put away the leftover pasta and Italian sausage. He's about to help her with her shower, then help her to bed. He'll have to stay close the rest of the night. It's a choreography they've followed the past six years.
And it's one they'll continue as long as they can, Ed says.
"You got to do what you got to do."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.