October 3, 2015

It’s the little things

May 8

Main Photo
Fred Pfender and his wife, Elaine, are both members at Senior LIFE in North Franklin Township. Elaine was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last summer. Photo by Emily Petsko/Observer-Reporter

The love that Fred and Elaine have for each other is palpable. It seemed everything and everyone in the room faded away as Elaine reached for her husband’s hand and said, “I love you,” one of the few phrases she repeats at random intervals.

“I love you too, honey,” Fred said to Elaine, before turning to me and saying, “It’s like I’m her safety blanket.”

After 45 years of marriage, the Pfenders, of McDonald, are enduring the most devastating challenge of their lives.

Elaine was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last summer. Fred started to notice a change when Elaine let the bills pile up, even though she had been in charge of household finances their entire married life. Then she started wandering, moving objects and forgetting where she placed them. She once put her cellphone in the washing machine.

She even developed a habit of kissing strangers on the cheek and telling them, “I’m a Polack.”

Both Elaine, 66, and Fred, 68, recently became members of Senior LIFE in Washington, which allows them to receive free health care at the center. It also gives Fred a break from having to constantly watch Elaine at home.

Elaine has a lot of spunk. When I met her, she was wearing a half-dozen beaded bracelets and a colorful flowered hat that would be the envy of any Kentucky Derby attendee. She got up and started dancing to “My Girl” when it played at the Senior LIFE center.

And she’s fighting hard for her independence. She seemed to understand every question I asked Fred and interjected a few times to say, “We grew up together” and “I just love him.”

There are also the bad days, when Elaine gets frustrated and slaps Fred across the face. She is reluctant to give up the duties she had done her whole life, like vacuuming and washing clothes.

I was most struck by Fred’s unwavering devotion to Elaine despite the many frustrations and challenges that come with caring for an Alzheimer’s patient. His biggest fears are dying before her, and reaching the day she no longer recognizes him.

Once Elaine’s disease progresses to the point where Fred can no longer be her sole caretaker, he’ll try his best to move into a nursing home with her.

But for right now, he’s doing everything in his power to make her happy, like making her French toast with her favorite strawberry jam every morning. And that is enough.

“It’s the little things,” Fred said.

When I ended the interview and said goodbye to Elaine, she got up, kissed me on the cheek and said, “I love you.” She still has love to share, even with a stranger she had known for two hours.

Fred is right about the little things. Preserving Elaine’s happiness and spirit for as long as possible is the hope that keeps her family going.

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The Observer-Reporter's latest staff series will feature Alzheimer's and dementia. Each month, we will concentrate on different aspects of the disease, from what it is, who is affected, resources, and more. This powerful series will go on for the conceivable future.