When Terry DeMeo moved back to Florida four-and-a-half years ago, she never dreamed she’d be moving back into her ex-husband’s life.
“We went through a bitter divorce 25 years ago after he left me with a nursing baby and a toddler,” said DeMeo, a 63-year-old personal and professional development coach from Miami. “It was very traumatic for me and I was angry for two full decades. But when I came back and saw him, it was hard to stay angry.”
It wasn’t Cupid that was responsible for DeMeo’s change of heart. It was cancer — in particular, the neuro-endocrine cancer that had left her ex-husband, Bruce J. Winick, nearly blind and in dire need of help. Despite their combative past, DeMeo set aside her bitterness and offered her ex whatever assistance she could, a decision she calls “one of the most profound and wisest things I’ve ever done.”
DeMeo is one of a growing number of divorced woman to come to the aid of a severely ill or dying ex-husband, according to reports by hospice workers and other health care providers.
But while divorced women caring for former spouses may be becoming more commonplace, the reasons behind the trend are as complex as the machinations of love itself, according to a new, small study released by the University of Missouri.
The study, which focused on 10 divorced women who had become caregivers for their ex-husbands, found that the women were spurred by a host of motivations, including altruism, guilt, and, perhaps most important, the need to protect their children.
According to DeMeo, her children's feelings were definitely part of her motivation for participating in her former husband’s care.
“My one daughter was living with him and was very concerned about him and if I talked to her and tried to offer support from a place of bitterness, it had no authenticity,” she said. “When I dropped my ‘weapons,’ they were relieved. They loved their dad and had always had a relationship with him. Now he could come here for Christmas dinner and there was no tension.”
Keeping the kids out of it
Some women in the study said they worried that if they didn’t take care of their exes, their kids would have to take on the job.
“It wasn’t that their children were incapable,” said study co-author Christine Proulx, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri. “But their children were at the peaks of their careers and involved with their own families. In many cases the women were trying to ward off a sandwich-generation situation for their kids.”
Sometimes it was the grown children who reached out to their moms.
One of the women interviewed for the study described a frantic phone call from her daughter, who said “Mom, Dad’s really, really sick. I think there’s something really the matter with him.”
The call prompted “Anne” to check in on her ex, who turned out to be gravely ill. She told her daughter, “Something’s gotta be done. He can’t be staying by himself anymore.”
Other women said they stepped up simply because they knew no one else would.
“Although it’s objectively easy for someone to say that formal caregivers could have stepped in, that was not seen as an option by these women,” said Proulx.
In DeMeo’s case, the specialized help she provided couldn’t have come from a traditional caregiver.
In addition to driving her ex to appointments (where she took notes and asked questions on his behalf), she helped research his disease, combing through records and studies and second opinions in an effort to help him battle it.
“He was very concerned with beating the disease and because of his eyesight problems, he needed help,” she said. “We had done legal cases together 30 years earlier and it was like rekindling that. It was like in the old days when we were tilting at windmills as civil rights lawyers.”
Eventually, though, his condition deteriorated and DeMeo’s role changed.
“He wouldn’t entertain the possibility that he wasn’t going to be around, so I tried to help the kids understand that,” she said. “He wasn’t able to say goodbye; he wasn’t able to have those conversations. So I had those conversations for him and tried to help them make sense out of it.”
After a “heroic battle,” DeMeo’s former husband died last August at age 65.
The moral thing?
Other reasons women said they cared for their exes included trying to avoid feeling guilty and feelings of altruism, said Proulx, who said a common refrain was “Everyone deserves to be cared for at the end of their lives by someone who cares for them. I hope that when my turn comes I can die the way I want to.”
Dr. Karolynn Siegel, professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, said the various motivations didn’t surprise her.
Still, Siegel said, “What’s interesting is that this is not a social obligation. People do not expect these women to care for their exes, though some clearly felt a moral compunction or desire to do it.”
Siegel said in addition to the moral responsibility, some of the women may have wanted to set a good example for their children.
“You want to be a role model for your children of what a spouse should do,” she said. “This is someone you raised a family with — and there are certain moral obligations.”
DeMeo said while some people applauded her decision and others questioned it — telling her she was "just taking care of him again" — for her it was not just the moral thing, but the healthy thing to do.
“It was absolutely a good thing for his sake and for my sake and for the kids’ sake,” she said. “It was simply destructive to hold onto that bitterness, that outrage. I’d had children with the man. I’m sure it helped me more than it helped him.”
Other women found it offered them a time for reflection and, finally, closure.
One woman in the study, referred to as “Sheila,” noted that in the final weeks of her ex’s life, the two former spouses said “everything we needed to say.”
“It’s like you take two ends of a ribbon and you tie it in a bow,” she said. “That 20 years he and I had were tied up with a bow in that last three weeks we had together.”