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Largo seniors need help affording a caretaker this holiday season

Holiday Hopes 2021 | Gary Murphy wants to make their home a safe place for his wife to live.
Gary Murphy, 60, and his wife, Sonja Serini, 64, at their Largo home on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Serini was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy four years ago, which has impaired her movement and speech.
Gary Murphy, 60, and his wife, Sonja Serini, 64, at their Largo home on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Serini was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy four years ago, which has impaired her movement and speech. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 24
Updated Dec. 2

Editor’s Note: For the 16th consecutive year, the Tampa Bay Times presents Holiday Hopes, a series profiling people in need that gives readers a chance to help. The Times will update readers about granted wishes in January.

When Sonja Serini returned from celebrating her 60th birthday in her native Switzerland, she wasn’t the same.

The Largo resident had always been blunt, fiery even — when she first met Gary Murphy, he was in a relationship with someone else. Unperturbed, she walked right up to him and said, “I want you.”

When the pair married years later, she insisted on keeping her last name, and rejected the idea of U.S. citizenship after a certain president — Murphy can’t remember which one — was elected, declaring Americans were foolish. She was headstrong, no doubt, but she was also incredibly warm.

Related: Holiday Hopes: Help a Florida teen go from a youth shelter to college

But now she was short with people, abruptly cutting off friends she’d known for years. A fabulous jewelry-maker, she was suddenly disinterested in her unfinished projects. Then she lost control of movement in her foot. Her face started to twitch.

Serini was eventually diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that causes problems with movement and mood, and that renders someone severely disabled within years.

Serini, now 64, spends most of her days on the couch, watching television while Murphy goes to work as an electrician. He says she is unable to communicate.

“And after all this, I really saw what she did behind the scenes while I was gone,” Murphy, 60, said. “She really supported us all.”

Gary Murphy, 60, shows photographs of the jewelry his wife Sonja Serini, 64, made before she was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in their Largo home on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.
Gary Murphy, 60, shows photographs of the jewelry his wife Sonja Serini, 64, made before she was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in their Largo home on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

But Serini is stubborn. She still tries to walk sometimes while Murphy is gone — breaking her left hand, a part of her shoulder and seven ribs earlier this year.

Murphy recalls a time when she tried to set the table shortly after her diagnosis. She fell, and a fork punctured her palm. “It’s been tough for her mentally, because she still wants to do things,” Murphy said.

The medical bills add up. Serini underwent a surgery to repair her shoulder on Nov. 16, and physical therapy will follow.

Things got more difficult for the pair, who rely on Murphy’s income alone, after he was struck by a car while walking out of his workplace in August.

His vacation time quickly dried up — Murphy had to take unpaid days off to recover, adding to their financial strain.

“I tried to work, and I just made myself worse,” Murphy said. “It’s just been a battle uphill, going back to the doctor and dealing with my pain, her pain.”

The couple is caught in a Catch-22, Murphy said — he needs to work to support them. But when Serini is alone, she’s in danger of getting hurt.

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She receives about three hours of home care daily through Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, he said, but for the remaining six hours of Murphy’s shift, Serini is left unsupervised. Paying for additional home care out-of-pocket is out of the question.

“We live paycheck by paycheck on my income,” Murphy said. “The agency has given us a lot. But I know she needs 24-hour care. I have to work so much, but it just breaks my heart to leave her alone.”

The couple is asking for help affording a private-pay, full-time caretaker for Serini this holiday season, as well as any financial help they can get to pay lingering medical bills.

Currently, Murphy is working half-days at his job to ensure he’s home by the time their home health aide leaves.

“It’s coming to an end where I can’t leave her,” he said. “It puts a strain on our finances, but it is what it is. It makes me feel bad, because I can’t support her all I want.”

How to help

To donate, visit Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community’s website here. Click “Donate today” and write “For Sonja Serini and Gary Murphy” in the “Leave a comment” section.

Check donations can be mailed to: Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, 12100 Seminole Blvd, Lot 370, Largo, Fl 33778. Be sure to write “For Sonja Serini and Gary Murphy” in the check’s memo section.