Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happily married for 60 years. Then Alzheimer’s. And a gun.

01 January, 2020

NEW YORK — It began almost playfully, like tiny hiccups in her mind. She would forget she had already changed the sheets and change them again, or repeat a thought in the same breath.

Then the illness amplified.

She grew confused by everyday tasks. Later, she became convinced her parents were still alive and insisted upon a visit. At social gatherings, she was anxious and fearful. She forgot how to sew and cross-stitch. She forgot the faces of her children.

She did remember her name. Alma Shaver. But not her age. Eighty.

And sometimes, she did not know her husband.

He was Mr Richard Shaver, a man whose wife of 60 years had been found by dementia, that thief that robs the minds of 50 million people worldwide. So common, yet so personally cruel — it comes with no road map for those tending to the afflicted.



For a while, her husband managed. He would sit next to his wife and rub her hand, her knee, to try to calm the unease. He left notes explaining simple tasks. If she was stuck repeating herself, he asked yes or no questions to break the cycle: Did you graduate in 1957, Alma? Why, yes.

When visiting family, he picked out her clothes, usually the beige sweatshirt with the collar and a bird stitched on the front. He resorted to fast food in the drive-through lane so she wouldn’t have to get out of the car.

By the spring of this year, things had gotten worse, as they always do with an illness that takes and takes and takes. She had slipped beyond a murky fog that her husband could not join.

He waited until the two were alone in their Brick, New Jersey, home, a white colonial they had bought in retirement because the deck opened up to a lagoon.

It was a warm Sunday afternoon in June, the kind of day where, in healthier times, he would have steered his boat out on the water, and she would have sat on the deck swing waiting for his return.

Instead, she was in the upstairs bedroom asleep, the only peace she ever seemed to find.

Mr Shaver, 79, crawled onto the canopy bed — the one they had shared for years — and shot his wife. Then he lay down beside her and shot himself.

CHARISMA AND LAUGHTER

He asked her to the Candyland Cotillion, a high school dance, in 1956. He arrived in a dark suit with his blond hair slicked to one side. She wore a sleeveless dress and a circle of pearls. He swiped her dance card and scrawled his name across all seven lines.

Read also: Nearly 3 in 4 people with dementia in S’pore feel ashamed, rejected: Study

They had known each other since childhood, not unusual in the village of Shadyside, Ohio. That night, Ms Alma Archibald went home and declared, “I’m going to marry that Richard Shaver.”

Two years later, they eloped.

They eventually moved to Landing, New Jersey, where they raised three daughters. By then, he had worked for NASA and General Electric Co in electrical engineering and was travelling often for Radio Corp of America.

In 1992, the couple moved to Brick near Barnegat Bay, where they were a comforting sight in the neighborhood — pulling weeds, riding bikes, holding hands.

At home and when visiting others, the two tended to be in the same room, often sitting side by side.

'THE PLACE'

Mr Shaver had always been flippant about what he wanted in his final years.

He would joke about overdosing on pills when the time came or say he did not want a funeral, just a party with lots of booze and funny stories. He referred to nursing homes as “The Place.”

“Don’t send me to The Place,” he would say.

When his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, he avoided discussing it and grew evasive about the future. He dismissed offers of help and suggestions that he hire a home health aide. His daughter Karen McDonald wanted to buy him a home near her. He declined.

“He didn’t want to talk about it — just like, ‘Mind your own business. I’m taking care of it,’” Ms McDonald, 58, said. “His whole life was always about her. She was the most important. Not the kids or the grandkids. It was her.”

One of the few times he admitted to being rattled by the disease was when his wife lashed out at him, recalled his daughter Kristy Truland, 52.

His own health was a mystery. He complained of back pain but never revealed the results of doctors’ visits.

At one point he declared that he and his wife were going to take a break from doctors because they didn’t seem to be doing any good.

Their home grew dusty and unfamiliar. Mr Shaver turned down his daughters’ gift of a cleaning service. The home had once been a hub for the family, where the couple hosted children and grandchildren. But Ms Alma Shaver herself had become childlike.

“The first time she didn’t know me, I was crying in the shower,” Ms Truland said, “because my mother was gone.”

In late May, Ms Shaver fell in the garage, nearly taking down her husband with her. The incident unnerved him.

She ended up having to go to the hospital. The following week, Ms Valerie Dominioni, a friend who lived across the water, stopped by with a rose.

“Alma really appreciated it,” Mr Shaver later told Ms Dominioni on the phone. “You’re such a good neighbor.” He sounded emotional.

Ms Dominioni, 75, thinks of that call often, as well as something Ms Alma Shaver said to her earlier that afternoon.

“We have to go away,” she’d said. “You understand, don’t you?”

‘IT MAKES SENSE’

Their bodies were discovered June 10 after police arrived for a welfare check. Ms Truland, their daughter, had been unable to reach them for their usual phone call.

Coroner’s reports would reveal that her mother tested positive for the painkiller Oxymorphone and had been shot in the back of her neck. Her father had been shot in the mouth.

The reports also noted that he had metastatic tumors on his liver and kidneys and had emphysema.

Authorities would file away the deaths as a murder-suicide, an act of domestic violence, and the news was posted on an anti-gun violence website.

Months later, the surviving family members have come to see it like this: It is not the ending they would have chosen. But they won’t hold it against their father.

“If you knew him, it makes sense,” his daughter Linda Shaver, 55, said.

They have no idea when or how their father acquired the revolver. Going through his things later, they found a box of pills with a note that had one daughter’s phone number and a receipt for a recent hotel stay.

Perhaps a quieter plan had failed. Their mother had been having trouble swallowing lately, a symptom of the disease’s progression.

Mr Shaver’s death especially stung his daughters. They were accustomed to their mother not being entirely there. They never thought their father would soon leave, too.

But they are thankful to not be embroiled in a murder trial and impelled to now lead full lives, aware that the disease could come for them, too.

There is one thing that still makes them collapse inside when they reflect upon it all: The thought of their father in his last hour on that bed.

They imagine him lying next to his dead wife, placing the towel over his face, slipping the gun into his mouth, telling himself it was time to pull the trigger. He must have felt so alone.

THE NEW YORK TIMES


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