George Hoffman, 82, plunged into the dating pool three years ago, soon after his wife died with Alzheimer's disease. No other woman would ever replace Lucille, but years of caregiving had him primed. He wanted romance back in his life, and soon.
After a few false starts, he found himself sitting on the couch at Evelyn Ramm's house. For years they had attended a support group for caregivers. Evelyn's husband had died recently, and she and George had gone to dinner a few times. Now he posed a question:
"On a scale of 1 to 10, how passionate are you?"
Evelyn, then 82, rose from her chair, eased over to George and uttered the words he longed to hear: "I'll show you."
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Thousands of people in the later stages of life attend support groups because their loved ones suffer from dementia. They share caregiving tips, laughs and tears. They bare emotions their generation rarely reveals in public.
It's only natural that men and women sometimes develop an intimacy more powerful than 100 barroom encounters.
"I wouldn't want people to think they can sign up for a support group like a dating service . . . like call the Alzheimer's Association and get lucky," says Gloria Smith, director of the association's Tampa Bay chapter.
But "it happens quite a bit. It's the friendship bond. They don't realize that other people are going through the same story. After they realize that, it's "Wow, this person can relate.' "
Typical Tampa Bay support groups include about two women for every man, not great odds for the women. But the men tend to be healthy for their age _ they couldn't do much caregiving if they weren't.
George Hoffman can drive at night. That alone puts him ahead of his age-group curve. He took care of Lucille at home for 10 years before finally putting her in a nursing home a few months before she died. His trials and those of other caregivers were chronicled in a 2002 St. Petersburg Times report called "Alone Together: A year in the life of an Alzheimer's support group."
The group, which meets once a week, forms a primary social outlet for many of its 13-15 members, who frequently go out to lunch and check on each other by phone.
When their spouses were alive, George would look across the conference table and think about how nicely Evelyn dressed, always stylish and coordinated. After meetings, he would kiss her on the cheek, as he would all the women.
Evelyn remembers thinking, "He's a pain in the neck. He thinks he knows everything. George always had such a big story to tell."
After Lucille died, George hated being alone. "There is nothing like having a warm body next to you when you wake up in the morning," he says.
He tried to date Gil Nichols, a bubbly widow from the group, but one dinner made it clear she wanted no part of a deep relationship. "I'm perfectly happy the way I am," Gil says. "I guess I'm a one-man woman."
Evelyn was different. Arthur Ramm, her husband of 28 years, was a gentle, funny man _ much beloved at the adult day care center where Evelyn sent him. But seven years of Alzheimer's stripped away the physical side of love, and Evelyn missed it.
When Arthur died, she grieved a few months, then took up with George.
Now they have a routine _ every weekend at his place, every Thursday night at hers, where she cooks up Italian feasts or healthy salads and fish. They talk by telephone three or four times a day, discussing kids and grandkids, the support group (George still attends, Evelyn has quit), or whatever else is going on in the world.
It was Evelyn who drove George to the emergency room when his old four-pack-a-day habit finally caught up with his lungs. "He almost died on me," she says. Now tubes to his nose tether George to a portable oxygen canister _ but he barely misses a beat.
"We have a lot of laughs," George says. "She's 83 and you'd think she was 38. I feel 28."
Neither of them favors remarriage. It would complicate their financial independence. Besides, living under one roof would strain their differing styles. Evelyn likes things new and uncluttered; George values thrift and hates to throw things out.
Evelyn's nickname at support group was the "Drill Sergeant," born of her gruff demeanor and no-nonsense nursing background. Friends joke that she is the only woman from the group _ if not Pinellas County _ who can handle George's blunt self-confidence.
They like to bicker over minor matters just for the sheer fun of it. A few minutes later, they will be calling each other "honey" and "dear."
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Wedding vows seem so simple when life lies ahead:
"To love and to cherish . . . forsaking all others . . . in sickness and in health."
But what happens when a spouse is here but not really here? Can a man share time and feelings with a woman who is not his wife?
Ed, 73, holds his wife's left hand, the one that carried her gold wedding band for 46 years.
"Katy? . . . Katy? . . . I'm here . . . I'm here with you."
Catherine, 76, stares impassively from her wheelchair, blank to her husband's endearments. Her thick black hair and soft pale face give no hint of the destruction within her brain. Alzheimer's has stolen her powers of recognition, and Ed's face flushes when he speaks of it.
They have traveled this road for seven years _ from the early days when she would stash butter in the linen closet to her final days at Bon Secours nursing home.
Luckily for Ed, he is not alone. For 15 months, he has enjoyed the companionship of Mary, a 76-year-old widow. They go to restaurants on weekends, attend plays and take quiet walks in the park.
"It helps to have somebody to talk to," Ed says, "somebody who's been through it."
Neither Ed nor Mary was on the prowl. They met at the same caregivers support group that Evelyn and George attended. They started socializing after Mary's husband died.
"He's the nicest man I've ever known and the kindest," Mary says. "I've only had really two men in my life, and they are two of the best. I'm not exactly Miss America. I don't know how I got so lucky."
Though their relationship remains platonic, Ed and Mary remain circumspect at the support group about seeing each other on the side. You never know how someone might interpret _ or misinterpret _ a relationship between caregivers of the opposite sex. At their request, their last names are not included in this story.
"We aren't going to lie if someone asks," Mary says. But with Catherine alive, "it might be kind of sticky."
When Ed's old Korean War-era submarine crew had a reunion in Charleston, Mary traveled with him. "In our generation, you didn't do things like that," she says.
"One made a commitment and stayed with it," Ed concurs. "But sometimes, life goes on. There are human needs. With Catherine, I feel like I've already lost her."
What Ed gives to Mary he is not subtracting from Catherine.
LaRelle Szumski, who runs the dementia wing at Bon Secours, sees Ed come in several times a week, though Catherine rarely reacts.
"He's become a very realistic person over time," Szumski says. "For a while he grieved about what he had lost. Now he accepts what he still has. He's always smiling and happy to see her, no matter what he gets from her. They just hold hands and he sits beside her. She'll kind of lean toward him when it's quiet."
When knee surgery kept Ed from driving, Mary drove him to visit Catherine and waited in the lobby.
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Over and over, caregivers at support groups tell each other to remember their own needs. Don't let the disease get you.
Want a vacation? Go ahead, you deserve it. Can't manage Charlie at home? Put him the nursing home, you did all you could.
Sex outside of marriage, however, puts this warm blanket of permission to the test.
"People have pretty strong opinions on both sides," says Smith, the Alzheimer's Association director. "Some people feel that it's still your wife, she's still alive, and it's cheating."
Tom and Lee Pickard grew up in a small town in New Brunswick, right down the street from each other. They started going steady when he was 16 and she 14. They traveled the world together because of his job with Alcan aluminum company. She began to slip away soon after they retired to Dunedin. She was only 62.
Month by month, their world shrank. No more canoe trips to the Canadian woods or weeklong sailing jaunts down the coast. No more concerts or plays.
The turning point came when meaningful conversation stopped. Tom figured his marriage was over.
"We had always been such great talkers. We talked about everything. When we were poor, there wasn't much else to do except talk," he says. "When she could no longer carry on a conversation, she was no longer the person I had known all my life."
That's when he started looking. He asked friends if they knew any interesting women _ to no avail. On a lark, he remembered Gina Figari, an attractive, younger women he worked with years earlier in Brazil. He tracked her down, wooed her with letters, then headed south for a 10-day visit.
Lee stayed at Balmoral, an assisted living home in Palm Harbor. The next year, Tom made four trips to Brazil. On one, the Pickards' 38-year-old daughter took care of her mother.
"I wasn't happy with it," Sarah Pickard recalls. "Here was my father moving on and there is my poor mother. At one point I felt like he was taking advantage of her. I remember being grateful that Mom didn't know."
That's a common reaction, says Dr. William Haley, a University of South Florida psychologist who specializes in caregiving. When healthy spouses go outside a marriage, children and friends may get angry.
In one family he's working with, Haley says, the children still are not speaking to their father, even though he visited their mother in the nursing home every day before she died.
"I'm convinced he utterly loved and cared for his wife, in the way he could care for someone with end-stage Alzheimer's," Haley says. "But the children view it as an extramarital affair."
As her mother declined, Sarah Pickard came to accept her father's decision. "I felt bad for Dad. How could you live next to a person all your life and they are your life and they don't know your name? That has to beat down on your soul."
About a year after Tom started dating Gina, Lee became incontinent. "I just couldn't handle that," he says, "I'm just not a very good caregiver." After seven years caring for his wife, Tom moved Lee to Balmoral permanently.
Awhile later, he revealed to fellow caregivers at his support group that he had a girlfriend.
"I told them . . . it isn't Lee's fault that she got Alzheimer's. It isn't my fault. But life is a precious gift. I was determined to live my own life, having lost her."
His explanation didn't cut it for some members of the group, who were were sticklers about wedding vows.
"I remember they were trying to cover up their gasps," recalls Peggy Connally, who supervised the group. "Other folks were extremely supportive. I remember commenting to him, "Tom, you really have a healthy attitude.' "
After the meeting, one man sidled up to Tom and let on that he, too, had a honey. A few weeks later, he revealed it to the entire group.
Lee Pickard died last March at age 71.
Tom Pickard, 74, now lives six months a year in Brazil, where Gina, 52, works for a computer graphics company. Sometimes, she visits here on holidays.
Sarah Pickard still grieves for her mother. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't cry for her."
Still, she enjoys Gina's company.
To read "Alone Together: A year in the life of an Alzheimer's support group," please visit www.sptimes.com/links. Click on "Sometimes love isn't enough."
For information about Alzheimer's support groups, call the Alzheimer's Association, Tampa Bay Chapter at (727) 578-2558