This story earned a 2010 Spotlight Award with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association:
A LOVE STORY
Alzheimer’s erodes woman’s memories but not her love for husband.
February 14, 2009|By Marion Callahan Of The Morning Call
This is not the life Mike Loforte imagined.
When he kisses his wife goodnight each evening, he also says goodbye. She’s been told that her new home, the Alzheimer’s unit of Whitehall Manor, keeps her safe, but she doesn’t remember why he leaves each night.
Jean Loforte doesn’t recall the events that led her husband to the most difficult decision in their 60-plus years of marriage — to live apart. She doesn’t recall the day she screamed for the police because she didn’t recognize her husband, or the night she walked out the front door and forgot her way home.
But she remembers pieces of their teenage years: sneaking off for long walks at night in their Brooklyn neighborhood and holding hands during day trips to Coney Island. With a little nudging, she recalls the ring Mike had tucked in his pocket and the movie house where he gave it to her.
She remembers expressing her love, over and over again, in hundreds of letters sent to faraway places in the Pacific, where Mike served during World War II. She signed every letter, “your wife, Jean,” even before they married.
Once he returned and they married, not another letter was written.
Until a nurse handed Mike a crumpled piece of paper that she believes fell out of Jean’s purse sometime in the last month.
“Mike, I love you very much. I miss you very much. Never leave me. I hope to see you soon. With love, your wife Jean.”
It wasn’t simply her words that struck him.
“It reminds me of the way she wrote me when I was in the service — when we were young,” said Mike, 84. “That’s what got to me.”
Jean, 82, doesn’t remember writing it.
Mike will never forget it.
He keeps the frayed note in his wallet as a reminder of the love and treasured memories that time or disease can’t erase. It has been more than two years since Jean was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a disease that changed their lives and their idea of what growing old together would mean.
For nearly 28 years after Mike retired from New York’s Transit Authority, they lived as they planned — moving to Florida, going out with friends, enjoying nights out dancing, joining clubs and volunteering at church.
“I figured the golden years are the years you do what you want to do,” Mike said, adding that a road trip to Alaska was also in his plans.
But in Florida, something began happening that Mike couldn’t understand. Friends in their Fort Lauderdale community told him that Jean would routinely leave her home and forget how to get back. She stopped driving. At night, she roamed the house, leaving the refrigerator door open and dirty dishes in the cupboards. A doctor told Mike her actions were symptomsof Alzheimer’s, which is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and affects more than 5.2 million people.
Her illness worsened during a trip to New York to visit their children. She would leave the house at night carrying scissors. One night, Mike woke up at 4 a.m. and saw her standing, holding scissors and a needle.
“I couldn’t take a chance in sleeping; I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “And it upsets you — when you don’t know what is going on.”
After a trip to Pennsylvania to visit relatives, Jean changed for the worse: “She went wild, screaming and hollering. She didn’t know anything or anybody.”
Mike moved her into Whitehall Manor, an affordable nursing home near relatives, expecting the stay would be temporary. Nearly every day, he drove 85 miles each way to Whitehall Township from Staten Island, where he lived with his son.
“For some reason, I thought they’d give her some pills and in a few months we’d go back to Florida. It didn’t turn out like that. It was rough when I realized what was happening. I cursed at the thought that she was here, that this happened to us,” Mike said.
Then, he said, she got worse.
She became distant and, sometimes, bitter. Next came the falls.
She refused to uncross her legs and stand up. When she did walk, she “constantly fell,” he said.
Her falls left her with black eyes, broken ribs and fractured wrists. The wheelchair came next.
But Mike refused to give in to the idea that she would stop walking. He moved to Pennsylvania, getting an apartment just a mile from Whitehall Manor, to spend more time with Jean.
“I’d tell her, “Get up,”‘ said Mike, who had persuaded her to hold onto the back of the wheelchair and start walking again. As she regained strength, he got her a walker. Today, she walks, clutching his arm for support.
One recent day at the home, she was asked about her progress. She turned to Mike:
“He’s my darling husband…I wouldn’t live if I didn’t have him,” she said.
Then the conversation shifted to another time, another memory. As she spoke, her memories drifted through the decades, from their retirement days in Florida when she cleaned the pews for her church, to a time in her 40s when she took a job sewing plastic slipcovers and sat near a window where she could watch people pass by.
When they are together, he doesn’t dwell on the confusion. She refers to her son, Joseph, as her brother or talks as if their grown daughter, Joanne, still lives with her.
“You see, she does this,” Mike said, caressing her hand. But he doesn’t bother correcting her because he knows it will upset her. “I say, “That’s all right; we’ll get it straightened out.”‘
It’s best, he said, not to remind her of the rough times. But some days, he has to confront her with the reality of their situation — especially when she questions why he must leave at night.
“I tell her that it doesn’t make sense, but our life changed and this is what we do. You’re there. I’m here.”
For Mike, there was never any doubt that he would continue to care for her and spend his days with her. He picks her up at the residential home, drives her to the apartment, where they have lunch and spend a few hours together.
“There is a big difference when she’s there and when I’m here alone. I had no appetite when she first went in. When she comes here and we’re together, it feels normal and I can eat.”
He’s tempted sometimes to let her stay, but she roams at night and he knows he can’t protect her. She sleeps in a special wing of a building where the doors are locked and nurses work around the clock. She’s aware that some patients in that wing don’t get a lot of visitors.
“She knows this and worries. I tell her, “Don’t worry about it.’ When I got married, I said my vows and I lived up to them. As you grow old, I realize, you always ask: What’s next? You can’t wait to get married, can’t wait to be retired, what’s next? At least we have one another.”
Today, he doesn’t focus on the big plans they once shared. He takes pleasure in the little signs of normalcy that come from their days together in the apartment: watching her prepare a salad, wash the dishes and flip through old photos capturing their life together.
And, of course, the letter.
“You wrote this,” he said, staring into her eyes one recent day at the home. “My wife wrote this.”
She reached for the wrinkled letter and said, “It looks familiar.” But she couldn’t remember. Then she turned to him and asked: “…What are the worst things of me?”
He folded the letter, held her hand and said: “I don’t know of any.”