Edith+Eddie, a short documentary nominated for Documentary Short Subject for the 2018 Oscars, is a gripping look at a couple in their 90s caught up in an intense family conflict over caring for an ageing parent.
As a columnist who covers ageing, I’m familiar with such stories. But as I immersed myself in the details of this case, I found myself reaching a familiar conclusion: real life is more complicated than in the movies.
On my first viewing, the events depicted in the 29-minute film were unsettling.
It begins in the fall of 2014 with Edith Hill, 96, and Eddie Harrison, 95, who were married only a few months before, enjoying a series of intimate moments – dancing together, holding hands, exercising and chatting comfortably.
It ends months later with the couple being separated by Hill’s court-appointed legal guardian, with police on the scene, and Hill taken off abruptly to Florida.
Shockingly, Harrison died only a few weeks later.
There are allegations from one of Hill’s daughters about money issues and possession of the family home, as well as insinuations of racism (Hill is black, Harrison is white).
End of story for some viewers, maybe. But family disputes about how to care for frail, vulnerable elderly parents are my territory – they are inevitably complicated and full of unresolved emotional issues. I started wondering about questions the film failed to address.
I reached out to Hill’s family members – including several who weren’t included in the documentary. I also contacted Hill’s independent guardian and several lawyers involved with this case, and reviewed Virginia court records, including a series of orders involving Hill between 2011 and 2015.
I reached out to Laura Checkoway, the film’s director, who told me in an initial interview that she became interested in chronicling the romance of Hill and Harrison in the summer of 2014 when they were reportedly the oldest interracial newlyweds in America.
Her intent was to focus on their love story.
“Throughout the 10 weeks of filming, our focus was solely on Hill and Harrison, and their relationship. We filmed all those around them who were willing to be filmed,” she responded in a written statement, explaining why she hadn’t explored the broader family issues. “Posturing by lawyers and case filings inevitably dehumanise the elderly and we were not interested in exploring these predictable events.”
But as I widened the scope, I discovered a different, familiar story – one that couldn’t be told in 29 minutes: Three daughters in distress over the care of an aged mother and roiled by disputes played out in courtrooms among far-flung siblings.
Here it is:
In 2011, Hill was diagnosed with moderate dementia, leaving her daughters – Ernestine Yates, Patricia Barber and Rebecca Wright – to chart her future. That year, a court declared Hill incompetent and named Yates her legal guardian, according to court records.
Hill moved from an Alexandria, Virginia townhome that she’d owned for decades, to Yates’ home in Baltimore. (Yates isn’t mentioned in the documentary. A son, Lewis McDaniel, died in early 2012.)
Wright – the only one of Hill’s daughters who appears in the film – had wanted to become her mother’s guardian.
But in a document filed with the Alexandria court on July 11, 2011, Hill registered opposition.
The reason? Wright had allegedly emptied her mother’s bank account of US$11,000 (RM42,964) and was refusing to return the funds, according to that court filing.
Attempts to ask Wright about this issue and other questions were unsuccessful. Wright wrote in an email that all the questions were based on false allegations and that the film shows how much she did for her mother and stepfather.
In December 2013, court records show a geriatric care manager determined that Hill required extensive, round-the-clock assistance with all routine activities.
Yates considered moving her mother to an assisted living facility, according to the geriatric care manager’s report, leading to more family division.
In 2014, Yates, 77, gave up guardianship “because it was getting to be a bit much and there was a lot of confusion going on”, she said, allowing simmering family conflicts to reemerge.
Her two sisters then became their mother’s co-guardians, court records show. But they disagreed among themselves.
All the people and records I consulted made it clear that the sisters for years had bickered over what was best for their mother.
“I do believe all three sisters loved their mother, but they each had their own idea of how to handle things,” said Joshua Bushman, who became Hill’s guardian ad litem in 2011 at the request of the City of Alexandria, Virginia.
In that capacity, his job was to oversee the families’ arrangements, and was involved with her case off and on for several years.
According to the care manager’s report, Barber thought her mother would be best off living with her in Palm Coast, Florida, while Wright wanted her mum to move back into her Alexandria townhome.
But that, the judge ruled, was impossible unless the home was renovated since the only bathroom was up a steep flight of stairs – a significant fall risk for the increasingly frail older woman.
So Hill moved to Florida to live with Barber in mid-March.
One month later, Wright suggested her mother visit Virginia over Easter to attend church and visit with family and friends, and Barber agreed to that plan.
In an interview, Barber said she thought her mother would enjoy the trip and asked Wright to bring Hill back to Florida in July, in time for several doctors’ appointments.
“After that, it was hard keeping track of where my mother was,” said Barber. “Rebecca was moving her around all over the place and wouldn’t return my phone calls. I had no idea she would take my mother off and get her married.”
Several close relatives – including Hill’s brother, Curtis Hubbard, Barber and two of her granddaughters – said in interviews they weren’t told about the wedding in June 2014 until after the fact, prompting a fresh round of mistrust and recrimination.
Hill and Harrison had met more than a decade before the events depicted in the documentary, when they happened to play the lottery together and ended up sharing US$5,000 (RM19,529) in winnings.
While they were fond of each other and spoke frequently over the phone, they saw each other relatively infrequently in the intervening years.
Was the marriage legal?
Some family members and legal experts thought not, since Hill had been declared incapacitated.
Asked to investigate the circumstances under which Hill was wed, Bushman wrote in a court filing that he determined that “Ms Wright was not acting in the best interest of Ms Hill at that point, because she was doing what she wanted to do and not working with her other co-guardian.”
“If a woman is under guardianship, she cannot alter her marital status – become married – without permission of the court,” said Kelly Thompson, a Virginia attorney and immediate past chair of the special needs section of the Virginia Bar Association.
Now that Hill was married, there was no question of her leaving Harrison and returning immediately to Florida, Barber said in an interview. Meanwhile, because the co-guardianship arrangement had become untenable, an independent guardian for Hill was appointed by the court – Jessica Niesen, an attorney in Fairfax, Virginia.
In an interview, Niesen said she had no reason to contest Hill and Harrison’s marriage because “it wasn’t hurting anybody and it was making them happy”.
But she had other concerns. Niesen wasn’t sure where Hill and Harrison were living; when she asked Wright for that information she was reportedly told they were moving between two Virginia houses on an unpredictable schedule.
Similarly, Wright reportedly declined to let Niesen see Hill or tell her when she was taking Hill to the doctor, according to the appointed guardian’s court filings.
“It was concerning, since I’m the one who was legally responsible for her and I didn’t know what was going on,” Niesen said.
In October, Kate Caldwell, a geriatric care manager who had previously evaluated Hill, conducted a home visit. In a written report filed with the court, she noted with concern that Wright had taken Hill off medications for dementia, hypertension, constipation and osteoporosis.
(Although Wright claimed a doctor had seen her mother and agreed to the medication changes, when Caldwell checked, she learned that wasn’t true, according to the report.)
During the visit, Caldwell discovered that Wright was planning to move Hill and Harrison into her mother’s Alexandria townhome and care for her there, even though the property hadn’t been renovated, as specified by an earlier court order.
“Although I feel Ms Wright deeply loves her mother, she does not have the nursing skills to be the full-time caregiver for her mother, and in addition, caring for Mr Harrison,” she wrote.
Caldwell’s bottom line conclusion: “I recommend Mrs Hill move to an assisted living community.”
Meanwhile, Niesen said she was getting calls from family members who worried that Hill was rapidly losing weight and not receiving necessary medical attention.
By late November, Niesen said in an interview she’d become convinced that Hill’s health and well-being were in danger and that Wright had no intention of cooperating with her attempts to oversee Hill’s welfare.
At that point, emails show Niesen let Wright’s lawyer know she wanted Hill to go to Florida for several weeks while she looked for an assisted living facility or an alternative living situation.
Her goal, she said in an interview, was to remove Hill from an unsafe environment, not to separate her from Harrison, who she’d invited to join Hill in Florida. (Harrison, who had never flown on an airplane before, declined repeated invitations, according to Barber and Niesen.)
Hill’s transfer was scheduled for Dec 6, but Wright failed to deliver her mother to a location agreed upon in advance, according to Niesen.
Niesen and Barber then went to Hill’s townhome and were met by a camera crew waiting to film the ensuing drama as Hill and Harrison lay next to each other in bed, overcome by helplessness and dread – a heartbreaking scene shown in the film.
Did Hill fully understand what was happening at that point?
It’s not clear how advanced her dementia had become or whether she could assess what was going on as the family’s feud engulfed her.
Could her distress have been alleviated, if she had received reassurance rather than being torn between conflicting factions? I think so. But that didn’t happen.
The film states that Hill and Harrison never spoke again. Barber insists that wasn’t true and that the couple spoke every day once she was in Florida – sometimes multiple times a day.
The film also purports to show “how guardianship laws fail to protect vulnerable adults”, according to a comment on its website, splitting up an ageing couple. The family members I spoke with don’t think that was the case.
“They’re trying to say it was some abuse or something,” said Hubbard. “There was no abuse. My sister was treated beautiful when she went down to Florida.”
“This film is distorted and hurtful,” said Davis, one of Hill’s granddaughters.
“It was meant to be temporary, my grandmother’s separation from Harrison, until they were able to place them somewhere together,” said Los Mosby, another granddaughter. “There was no abuse involved – none at all.”
Who had Hill’s best interests at heart? Was it Wright, who cooperated with the filmmakers and was living with her mother at the time?
Was it Barber, the daughter in Florida, who believed Hill needed what she felt was a more reliable living situation?
Was it Niesen, who intervened to address what the court had already found to be an unsafe situation for Hill, even if it meant splitting up the couple for a while?
Upon arriving in Florida, Hill weighed 98 pounds (44kg), down from 110 pounds (50kg) in October – a dangerous weight loss for someone so old and frail.
Two months later, Caldwell, the geriatric care manager, flew to Florida to perform a follow up evaluation.
Hill was gaining weight, getting physical therapy, taking all her medications and was well adjusted, according to her court report.
Hill passed away last March of natural causes at the age of 98, after living with her daughter in Florida through the end of her life.
She never went to an institution. Her home wasn’t sold until after her death; there was no attempt to plunder her estate by lawyers or family members.
That’s the other story of Edith+Eddie. – Kaiser Health News/Tribune News Service