McDonald man shows unwavering devotion to wife with Alzheimer's

Fred Pfender receives a kiss on the forehead from his wife, Elaine, as they get ready for lunch at Senior LIFE in North Franklin Township. Observer-Reporter Photos by Jim McNutt
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Elaine Pfender could wear a different hat every day from now until August. She keeps them stacked in a closet inside her McDonald apartment and asks, “How do I look?” after selecting one from the bunch.

On this particular May morning, her hat is straw, with artificial pink and yellow flowers sprouting from the rim. She says she made it herself, and no one rushes to correct her. This one was a gift.

“I always wore stupid hats just to make the kids laugh,” she said, and she repeats it often. It's one of her few remaining ties to the old Elaine – the Elaine who worked at St. Clair Hospital and comforted every patient she met.

One by one, her memories are being erased by Alzheimer's disease. While she is still fighting for her independence, she no longer understands “the big things” in life.

She gets excited about bracelets, floral shirts and fruit jam. She likes dining at Eat'n Park and watching birds from her kitchen window, which is harder to crack than a Rubik's cube because her knickknacks have overtaken the window sill.

Elaine Pfender has more than 50 hats from which to choose to wear daily. Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Three days a week, she eagerly awaits a bus that takes her to Senior LIFE, an adult day care program in North Franklin Township, where she gets to mingle and flaunt her hat du jour.

And she still has Fred. Elaine, 66, and Fred Pfender, 68, have been married 45 years. They grew up together in Elliott, in the West End section of Pittsburgh, where their mothers were neighbors and best friends. They played together as kids and eventually grew up to have four kids of their own, which blossomed into four grandchildren. Elaine mixes up names, but still recognizes her family.

Fred started noticing changes in his wife last summer. After paying the bills for years, Elaine started to let them stack up, unopened. She suddenly washed dishes without using soap, and she put her cellphone in the washing machine.

Elaine's outgoing and spunky personality remains unchanged, but she has become less tactful with strangers.

“She goes up to people and shows them her hat. She'll kiss people on the forehead and tell them she's a Polack,” Fred said. “Some days it's not too bad. Other days, she just has no comprehension of what's going on.”

Fred and Elaine both worked at St. Clair Hospital for years – Elaine worked at the information desk, and Fred cleaned and escorted patients – so they knew what to expect when Elaine was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last year. But that didn't make it any easier.

“It's devastating,” Fred said. “Sometimes I just lay in bed at night and cry because I know the day is coming that she'll be in a (nursing) home.”

Fred was elated when he discovered Senior LIFE, where the goal is to keep members living at home with their families for as long as possible. Fred has battled anxiety and depression for years, in addition to heart complications, and he said “a lot of stress left” when he and Elaine became members of Senior LIFE last fall.

It has made all the difference to Elaine, who rarely has a bad day when she's at the Washington facility.

“You can just see how happy she is in the day room,” Megan Detwiler, Senior LIFE director, said of Elaine. “She really enjoys the socialization, and getting out and seeing different people.”

At home, it isn't always so rosy. Elaine becomes frustrated when she doesn't get her way. Sometimes, she slaps Fred across the face.

But Fred stands by his wife every step of the way. He makes her French toast with her favorite strawberry jam every morning and remains impressively calm when she spoils her appetite by eating dessert rolls beforehand.

Their daughter, Chrissy, lives at home and also cares for Elaine. She said her father has handled her mother's Alzheimer's diagnosis remarkably well.

“I think he's doing great because he's more understanding of what she's going through and what she's thinking,” Chrissy said. “He's always (saying), 'It's going to be OK. It will be fine.'”

Fred said he knows he can't stop the Alzheimer's progression, and his only hope is to stay healthy enough to continue caring for Elaine.

“I always ask God to just keep me going,” Fred said. “If I had my way, I'd have him take us together, and end it together. But I don't want to leave her. We started life together, and we're going to end it together.”