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As Siblings Spar, Their Mother Makes Her Wishes Known

9 May 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - Laurette Borduas Eifrig asked for help yesterday morning to find a barrette for her hair. She "didn't want to look disheveled." She had a meeting with a Superior Court judge who had traveled across the city to see how she was doing in assisted living. The judge wanted her input about where she would like to live for the rest of her life.

Eifrig, 90, is now blind and suffers from dementia. She admitted that she couldn't make out her lawyer's face even though he was sitting just inches away. Although she used to love to walk, she is now afraid to go out alone, she said, for fear that she'd get lost. She said she doesn't have "real friends" because "the people here are just like I am. They are missing something…"

But Laurette Eifrig was very clear about what she wants:

Yes, she would go back to Virginia, to be closer to her younger daughter and granddaughter - as long as she didn't have to undergo a mental examination, which might cause her to lose some of the freedom she enjoys. But if given the choice, she said, she wants to remain at Capitol Ridge, on Smith Street, her home for the last three months.

"That's my favorite place of living… It's easier here. There's always someone to help me to do" things, she told Judge Alice B. Gibney.

"I like to be independent," said Eifrig, and at Capitol Ridge, "I don't have to depend so much on anyone else." If she wants to attend a concert there, she said, a staff member will escort her. But no one makes her socialize when she doesn't feel like it. And for now, she told the judge, she is happy not to have a telephone in her room because she dislikes telemarketing calls and has no desire to talk to family every day.

When her lawyer, Richard Boren, asked her if she realized that her choice to stay in Rhode Island meant that it would not be easy for her daughter, Francine, and only grandchild to visit, Eifrig said she knew it was a "complicated" situation which created a financial burden. She offered to pay if her Virginia relatives want to fly up more often to see her.

The one relative Eifrig has in Rhode Island - her older daughter Suzette Gebhard - is currently barred by court order from visiting with her mother. So for now, Eifrig may not have any visitors except her lawyer and her court-appointed guardian, lawyer Paula M. Cuculo. But Gebhard's lawyer is trying to get visitation back. Yesterday, he asked Gibney - who last month declared Gebhard "a kidnapping risk" - to change things so that Eifrig can have "unfettered" visitation with anyone she chooses, with "monitoring" by Eifrig's guardian.

Gibney's decision to travel to an assisted-living facility to conduct a trial was highly unusual. It was made to accommodate Eifrig, a pint-sized widow who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and macular degeneration. Because of her loss of sight, she becomes disoriented in strange surroundings. The judge, who must decide who should be Eifrig's permanent guardian, wanted to hear from Eifrig in a familiar setting where she was not stressed.

Dressed casually in a pink sweater and slacks, Gibney sat at a pool table covered with a tablecloth in a common room of the assisted-living facility. In the audience were Eifrig's two daughters, Gebhard and Francine Ardito, who are enmeshed in a bitter tug of war over their mother and do not speak to each other.

Ardito, a former nurse at the Walter Reed Army Hospital who wants to move her mother back to Virginia and wrest guardianship from Cuculo, sat at one table with her daughter, Alicea Ardito, and Eifrig's younger sister, Hermine Borduas. Gebhard sat at another table all alone, facing their backs.

The battle between the two sisters began a year ago, when Gebhard, a onetime congressional candidate and former president of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, suddenly moved her mother to Rhode Island from Virginia, where she'd lived for 13 years in an apartment near the Arditos. Gebhard told her mother she was taking her to live with her because Francine planned to put her in a nursing home. She then secreted Eifrig in her house in Warren for many months, defying court orders to let Cuculo visit.

Last week, Gebhard was acquitted of an obstruction of justice charge but Ardito's lawyer claimed yesterday it was on "a technicality" and deemed Gebhard - who has not testified at the current trial nor asked to be appointed her mother's guardian - unfit to have control over any aspect of her mother's life.

According to Dr. Andrew S. Rosenzweig, a geriatric psychiatrist, Eifrig suffers from Alzheimer's disease. In testimony he gave yesterday at Capitol Ridge, he said Eifrig is currently capable of assisting in decisions which affect her life - and should be consulted - but needs a guardian to protect her, someone who will make financial, residential and health-care decisions for her.

Alzheimer's disease afflicts about 50 percent of people over 90, Rosenzweig testified. He gauged Eifrig's dementia as "moderate" but said that Alzheimer's is a disease that is "relentless in its progression."

He said Eifrig "has adjusted quite well at Capitol Ridge" and that in his opinion, she should stay there. He said she probably would adjust to a similar facility if moved to Virginia but questioned the wisdom of doing that, since an entire new legal proceeding over guardianship would have to be opened there.

In her testimony, Eifrig was adamant that "the little freedom that I have I want to exercise as long as I live." Rosenzweig called her "an intelligent and wise woman in many ways" and someone who "should have a say in her future." Gibney said she found her "very savvy."

But she also tends to minimize the conflict between her daughters, Rosenzweig testified. Eifrig testified that she and her family "didn't always agree on things" but never had any disagreements "that were important." She added that while her daughters had very different personalities, they got along "more or less. A little difference of opinion is not a matter of a quarrel," she told Gibney.

She said nothing bad about her daughter Suzette but said that her daughter Francine - to whom she gave power of attorney, made co-trustee of her trust and who stands to inherit the bulk of her estate - is sometimes too controlling and that "sometimes we disagree on things."

Rosenzweig told Gibney that it's clear that Eifrig loves both her daughters and wants them both to visit. He said he has been impressed by Eifrig's "strength and courage through all this" legal wrangling, but said Eifrig's views on where she wants to live changes day to day and "the bottom line is she is not capable of making these decisions herself."

After hearing from Eifrig, the trial resumed in the Licht Judicial Complex. All the lawyers agreed that Eifrig needs a permanent guardian. The question is who.

Boren urged Gibney to keep Cuculo on, saying "their relationship has really blossomed." An outside guardian is necessary, he argued, "to not have the sisters at each other's throats."

Cuculo said she'd be happy to remain as guardian. "I'm not on anybody's side but hers," she assured the court. "My objective, my role, is to be her advocate." And for now, she said, she is confident that Eifrig does not want to go back to Virginia.

Janet Mastronardi, Ardito's lawyer, said Eifrig's younger daughter, granddaughter and sister were all willing to serve as guardian. Public policy favors a family member being appointed guardian over a stranger, she argued.

"That's in an ideal world," Gibney shot back.

Whoever is appointed guardian by Gibney will decide where she will reside. Gibney reserved decision, saying she wanted legal briefs on an issue raised by Mastronardi.

Mastronardi claims that because Eifrig, while competent, established a trust in Virginia, virtually all of her assets would still be controlled by her daughter Francine, even if Gibney declines to make Francine guardian. Boren and McCormick disagreed.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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