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‘Do I stay here?’ — Love endures daily through dementia, separation

Paul Lovell and his wife Anita embrace at Presence Sister Bonaventure Rehabilitation Center in Park Ridge, where he lives. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“You’re here!” says Paul Lovell, greeting his wife of 41 years as she walks into his room. “Don’t go away!”

She has come, as she does every day, to be with him at lunch.

“You look so beautiful today,” she says.

“I do?”

“No, the guy in back of you,” she says. “You look really good. You got your blue sweater on. Your blue pants. Your blue eyes.”

“Thank you,” says Paul. “I gotta keep up with you.”

Paul is 89. Anita is 85. She lives in their tidy home in Morton Grove. He lives at the Presence Sister Bonaventure Rehabilitation Center in Park Ridge.

Their conversation is a blend of teasing affection.

“He can hear; I can’t hear,” she says. “I told him he can hear two worms making love in the yard. I can’t hear anything.”

“The reason you can’t hear is because you’re talking too much,” Paul says.

They both laugh.

“That’s true,” she admits.

About 1.4 million Americans live in nursing homes; half for dementia-related reasons. One is Paul Lovell.

“It’s sad, about my husband,” Anita says. “Even though he has dementia, he’s so aware of everything.

“He’ll say, ‘Where you’re going?’ I say, ‘I’m going home.’ I’ve been there all morning. He says, ‘Aren’t you home now?’ I say, ‘No. This is your home.’ He says, ‘Are you going to leave me here all alone?’ I say, ‘You’re not alone Paul. You have people taking care of you.'”

She picks up a large book celebrating the 2006 centennial of Park Ridge Country Club.

“I was the only Jew in the whole country club, don’t you know?” she says. “I got nervous before we got married. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.'”

She finds a section about Paul.

“Oldest man ever to win a club championship,” she says.

“Did I ever see that?” he asks.

“Yes honey,” she says. “I used to read that to you a lot. He was one of the best.”

“I still play golf, don’t I?” Paul asks.

“Not anymore.”

“I never play golf?” Paul says, sounding stricken.

“Not lately,” she says, gently.

Retired dentist Paul Lovell | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

There is controversy over how candid caregivers should be with dementia patients. Most err on the side of kindness.

“This is a rehab center, I tell him,” Anita says. “They’re working on him to get better.”

Paul was a dentist who retired at 80.  “Twenty years I worked in his office,” Anita says. “We never had a fight. It’s sad. Our golden years.”

She first noticed something was going wrong with his memory 10 years ago. They were vacationing in Florida. He dropped her at the beauty shop and never came to get her. Eventually, she phoned the condo where they were staying.

“I got lost,” he told her. The beauty parlor was in a shopping center cross the street from the condo.

“That was one clue,” she says.

Every day she visits him, though that can be taxing.

“I need a day off,” she says. “My niece said, ‘Aunt Anita, you can take a day off. I give you permission.’ My grief counselor said, ‘You need oxygen. That’s oxygen, when you take a day off.’ But it’s easier said than done.”

“Lunch is here!” sings Lidia, an aide, rolling in a tray. She says that not every resident has family visiting regularly.

“Miss Anita is every day,” she says. “That’s different.”

“What does he have?” Anita asks. “Does he have a grilled cheese? What is that?”

Corned beef hash and diced potatoes. Plus a cup of vanilla ice cream with a cardboard lid. She gives the hash a try, but no go. “I don’t like that,” says Paul. Anita orders a grilled cheese, no crust, and while waiting takes out his false teeth, cleans them and puts them back in.

“It’s too loose, he can’t eat.”

Anita and Paul Lovell have been married for 41 years. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

After the sandwich arrives she carefully feeds him, breaking the sandwich into pieces and handing them to him, then spooning ice cream into his mouth.

“You look tired. You gonna go to sleep?” she asks.

“I might take a little nap.”

“You’re going to go downstairs?” he asks, as she stands.

“He thinks we’re home,” she says, as an aside.

“Okay dear, bye-bye, see you tomorrow,” she says, rubbing his arm.

“Now do I stay here?” he asks.

She kisses his hand.

“Yes, you stay here.”