Photo source: Stuff Limited
Multiple sclerosis (MS) can lead individuals with the condition to lose friends they thought were close, and gain friends in places they never expected to.
For one 75-year old woman named Harriet Fridkin, it led to a remarkable 21-year and counting dedication from her friends. Fridkin has been coping with multiple sclerosis for over 35 years. The condition has left her unable to move or use any part of her body, expect for her head. Her mind, on the other hand, is still as sharp as ever. 5 times a week, Harriet’s friends come to visit her in her home. They gather to help feed her, perform a few household chores for her, give her a therapeutic massage, and sit down to talk with her. “I like to talk to people. If people have problems I like to help solve them,” said Fridkin.
Her friends, who call themselves ‘Harriet’s Harem’, created a support group for their friend that has been active since 1996. The idea originated when Fridkin’s mobility began to worsen. Her friends started pitching in, doing what they could to help so she wouldn’t be alone before her husband, Jerry Fridkin, returned home from his job. However, the commitment proved to be a challenge. “We couldn't keep up with it. Jerry is such a proud man and did not want to accept any help, so we put it on us and said we needed help,” said Judy Feldman, one of the original organizers of ‘Harriet's Harem’. They came across a magazine article about a woman who had written a book titled: Share the Care: How to Organize a Group To Care for Someone Who Is Seriously Ill. It was about a group of caring and loving women, who called themselves ‘Funny Family’, who had taken care of their dying friend. The book depicted how the experience was transformative for the women and how it gave them a purpose, which they believed improved their friend’s end-of-life experience. “I thought the alliteration was fun. So, I came up with ‘Harriet's Harem' and it stuck,” said Feldman.
The group’s schedule
One day a month, a calendar is prepared and each day is assigned to a friend. There is never a day that is left unassigned. ‘Harriet’s Harem’ began with 12 members; however, some had passed away, some had moved away, and some had left and returned as their schedules permitted. Today, ‘Harriet’s Harem’ consists of 9 loyal members, 3 of whom turned 75 last year. “She gives so much more to all of us than I can tell you. She gives us the inspiration to go on, to overcome anything,” said Feldman. Fridkin’s friends remain loyal to her and strive to help her in any way that they can, but mostly, they enjoy her company and her positive attitude on life. “I only keep the good friends. The other ones, I don't keep around,” said Fridkin.
Friends vs. caretakers
Harriet Fridkin lives in Potomac with her husband. The couple have 3 children and 6 grandchildren. Fridkin has a caregiver who cares for her during the day; however, ‘Harriet’s Harem’ does the rest. “It helps her keep up with the outside world,” said Marjorie Fridkin, Harriet’s daughter who is a general surgeon at Garrett Regional Medical Centre in western Maryland. One of Fridkin’s favorite nights of the week is Monday, when her friends come over to her home to play bridge – just as they had done before she began losing feeling in her body. She also loves playing Sudoku, reading books, and is dedicated to shopping on QVC. “She is living; she's not just existing. It's astounding” said Feldman.
Before Fridkin got sick, she was a gourmet cook. She would cook tasty meals that she would even share with her neighbors, either when they stopped by or simply by passing a pot over her fence. “If they walked in, they'd walk out with something,” said Fridkin. As a younger woman, she recalled her home being filled with children and their friends, as well as delicious smells coming from the kitchen. “When it was lunch time I would feed them. They always knew they could stop here,” said Fridkin. Throughout the years, Fridkin had taken on several different types of jobs, including working as an elementary school teacher and as a coordinator for an Alzheimer’s support organization. Even after she became immobile, she continued to work. “I got paid to talk. You don't have to move to talk,” she said. Her daughter, Marjorie, recalls being a little girl and seeing her mother constantly moving - either knitting, cooking or entertaining friends.
Feldman recalled one day when she and Fridkin went out to eat at a restaurant. During this time, Fridkin could not feed herself and it was her friend’s duty to help her. However, the two chatted for such a long time that Fridkin barely got enough to eat. When it was time to leave, Feldman pushed the wrong button on her friend’s wheelchair and sent her straight for a table, knocking it over. “I was horrified and terrified. And she was just howling laughing,” said Feldman.
Years ago, Fridkin’s husband, Jerry, had adjusted their home so that his wife could find it much easier to move around. Even though he is a man of a few words, Jerry greatly appreciates all that Fridkin’s friends have done and are continuing to do for her. “I like to see Harriet having outside friends and interacting with friends. I like to see my wife happy. It’s a tribute to her, it shows you what a special person she is,” he said.
How they hope to inspire others
Fridkin said that she hopes the story of Cappy Capossela’s ‘Funny Family’ will move others the same way that it moved and inspired her and her friends. She attributes her humor and happy outlook on life as a result of her family and friends’ help over the years. “It's a lot easier to concentrate on somebody’s else’s problems and somebody else's life than just think about your own problems. I really hope it’s helpful to let people know they can form a group like this,” she said. To this day, her daughter continues to explain to her patients and friends about her mother’s harem and how helpful it is for her and her family. “Without social interaction, people are like a plant that doesn't get watered. The world comes to you. It has kept you who you are,” said Marjorie.
There may be several reasons as to why friendships fall apart when you are suffering from a chronic condition such as MS. It can be a sad and overwhelming experience, but the most important thing to remember is not to focus on the reasons why. It might be easier said than done, but if you think about it, it’s a common problem for almost anyone. A lot of individuals get married, have kids, and responsibilities shift in another direction. The shifting of responsibilities can even apply to situations that deal with chronic conditions such as MS. At the end of the day, coping with MS is a major life-changing event. If during this time your relationships change, it’s ok. It’s life, disease or not.