RIVERVIEW — Surrounded by photographs reminiscent of their life together, Claudette Michaud searches for her husband, Elden, behind the eyes of the man in the chair.
She is exhausted, but she holds his hand. She talks about their children, grandchildren, vacations and weddings.
On a good day, he responds with a childlike smile. He naps in his recliner. She watches daytime television.
If she leaves their 546-square-foot apartment at the Bridges Assisted Living Facility in Riverview, he might cry out for her. Or worse, forget her face. So no, she won't let go.
She won't take a spa day for herself or have lunch with friends. When she gets up to use the bathroom, she hurries so he doesn't try to follow her and fall.
He used to take care of her, and then came Alzheimer's.
"I want to protect him and help him," said Michaud, 70. "I know there's a limit to what I can do, but I just can't accept that. I said for better or worse."
• • •
They met as teenagers outside an ice skating rink in New Brunswick, Maine. He played it tough with slicked-backed hair, but she saw a kindness in his eyes that night. On April 19, 1960, they married in a Catholic Church.
He worked long hours at a paper mill to provide for her and their two sons. When she was sick, he cooked her soup. On the weekends, he went fishing or played golf while she went to the beauty parlor.
He never forgot to say "I love you" at night.
He saved all his life to retire to Florida. So a few years ago they loaded up a truck headed for Homosassa. They rented a modest house with plans to grow old together on the beach.
Then Elden, 71, underwent surgery to remove prostate cancer, and everything changed.
"When he woke up after surgery, he wasn't the same man," Michaud said. "He couldn't remember the president's name."
In the weeks after his cancer went into remission, Elden started to lose things. He became obsessed with checking his finances. At a family reunion, he wandered.
"The whole time he was there, he kept walking around asking where his car was," Michaud said. "I said, 'Honey, we flew here,' but he didn't know. That's the last time we traveled anywhere."
Michaud begged her husband's doctors for answers. They prescribed the Alzheimer's medication Aricept, but it didn't help. When Michaud suggested that surgery had triggered the dementia, they scoffed.
Elden's mother battled the disease, so it was in the genes, they said.
At home, Michaud struggled to manage the house and pay the bills. Before a trip to the store, she took the car keys straight from Elden's hand. He never complained about the role reversal.
But sometimes, he wept.
"That's one of the stages, the crying," Michaud said.
Isolation came next. Then he started mixing up the names of their children. He forgot his address and got lost in familiar surroundings.
"Whenever he left the house, he got disoriented," Michaud said. "So we stopped going out except to go to Mass."
• • •
She was relieved when their son Scott, 47, mentioned the Bridges facility under construction near his house. It wasn't ideal, but the idea of someone being nearby in case of an emergency eased Michaud's mind.
When Elden protested, she told him they had no choice. She couldn't let something happen to him on her watch.
"I was just a wreck, watching him all the time," she said.
She gave away their furniture, dishes and linens. She accepted that their retirement savings, meant for trips around the world, would go to foot the bill at an old-folks home.
The first night they spent in their one-bedroom apartment, she cried. She unpacked her photographs and put her throw pillows on the couch.
• • •
In the beginning, Elden knew where he was and chatted with other residents at parties in the dining hall. Then he started to withdraw, drifting in and out of lucidity. Things people take for granted, like getting dressed in the morning, became difficult.
He stopped grooming himself and became incontinent. His knees buckled every time he tried to walk on his own. He could no longer carry on a conversation.
Upon awakening each morning, she brushed his teeth, bathed him and changed him. She gave up their daily walks to watch him sleep. She stayed awake at night worrying.
The less he could do, the less she did.
"I lost him piece by piece," Michaud said.
At the same time, she gave away pieces of herself. Her love of shopping. Trips to see family. Time alone soaking in a hot bath.
One night last year, he fell out of bed and she could barely get him up. When her sons heard what happened, they made a decision. Dad had to get his own room in the Memory Wing.
• • •
When the alarm clock goes off at 4:30 a.m., she's thinking of him. She takes a walk around the building before going to pick him up for breakfast. He waits for her dressed and ready in a wheelchair. Sometimes he knows her name.
She is terrified of the future. She knows if he becomes completely bedridden, they'll have to move. He'll go to a nursing home.
What will happen to her?
According to the National Alzheimer's Association, 63 percent of caregivers die before their Alzheimer's-afflicted loved one. Many battle loneliness and depression or literally become sick with worry.
The Bridges offers an Alzheimer's support group, but Michaud doesn't go. She chats with the other residents about TV and the weather, not dementia. When they invite her to sit and really talk, she politely declines.
"Where I go, he goes, and once I bring him back to his room at night, I'm too tired to go anywhere," she said. "My support comes from family."
Scott visits once a week. Their other son, Mitchell, 49, lives in Alaska and can only come to town once a year. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews keep in touch by phone.
"I really don't go a day without talking to someone," she said. "It helps a lot."
Physically she is still in good health.
A couple of times a week, she lets the nurses watch Elden while she takes the bus to Goodwill, picks up groceries or goes for a walk.
"I won't go if it's going to be more than a couple of hours," she tells them.
On bad days, she reads her Bible and prays. She daydreams about the afterlife. She imagines Elden surrounded by white light. He'll smile at her and say her name.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.