FRED AND GINGER – PRELUDE
I recently visited my favourite book store, ‘Lorelei’, and came upon a book entitled ‘Letter to D – a Love Story’. The first paragraph reminded me of another bitter sweet love story – one of which influenced my decision to found ‘it take a Village’ in the hope that no more lifelong love stories end in heartbreak.
The paragraph of the book began:
“You’re 82 years old. You’ve shrunk six centimetres, you only weight 45 kilos yet you’re still beautiful, graceful and desirable. We’ve lived together now for 58 years and I love you more than ever….”
The book ended with a side note that the author of the book and his wife, who was terminally ill, died side by side by their own hand.
My story, unfortunately, is even more heartbreaking.
Although a true story, I am going to call the characters in my story Fred and Ginger.
Fred and Ginger
Fred and Ginger were in their late 80’s and were very much in love with each other. Ginger for most occasions looked immaculate and graceful. Fred was protective of Ginger whose memory was failing – together they were co-dependent. A practiced choreographed life that with Fred’s lead presented as flawless.
That was until Fred got sick. What was meant to be a short hospital stay turned into a much longer hospital stay. No one knew the stress and anxiety that Ginger was experiencing while her ‘rock’ and protector was away from her. By the time that Fred was discharged it all became too evident and that was when I got to meet them.
You didn’t have to know Fred and Ginger for long to appreciate their bond and love for each other. Despite Ginger’s failing cognition she was adamant she was going to care for Fred as he cared for her. They did not have family support, they only had each other.
Fred’s health continued to decline and Ginger’s cognition, heightened by stress and anxiety and fear that Fred will be taken away for her, became worse. Fred’s inability to be primary carer for his wife, his fear of what would happen to her if he passed, with the added blow that his licence was being revoked sent him spiraling into a deep depression. On top of all this it also became evident that Ginger was badly affected by cataracts and could not see. This explained why writing things down for her and setting up schedules were not working.
Once our allied health team understood all the issues affecting Fred and Ginger’s wellbeing and ability to manage co-dependently at home, we finally managed to put in place strategies to help them both. Fred and Ginger slowly accepted our help and the support and means to increase their independence, keep them safe, reduce their fear and anxiety and hopefully give them some space to get back to being each others best friend.
We loved to visit this amazing couple. To remind them both of who they are we often looked at old photos and listened to wonderful stories. For them, some days were better managed than others. They needed a lot of support and empathy, both physical and emotional.
Regardless of the support, you could see that Fred and Ginger were struggling with the ill health and lifestyle changes that had befallen them. The final blow to Fred’s self-esteem was his inability to control his bowels. The fear of disgracing himself in public meant he became a prisoner in his home. The light was fading from his eyes.
Ginger missed her Fred. She didn’t completely understand why he no longer took her out. She lived in daily fear of losing Fred. The light was fading from her eyes as well.
Deep down I knew that they had come onto our allied health program too late. So much could have been in place if Ginger’s cognition and cataract changes could have been addressed and managed sooner. I couldn’t change the past but with a little help I could bring the light back into their eyes.
With the help of a physiotherapist who I adore, we worked towards getting Fred and Ginger out of the house to go on a long overdue date so they could feel like the lovers they were and are.
The physio and I researched locations we could drive to with minimum risk of Fred having a bowel mishap. We found a place, made sure it was accessible, with table service and a table with both a view and close to a disability toilet.
We planned the event with Ginger’s help, discussing what she would wear, ensuring personal care services came early that day, and that we would arrive with plenty of time to sneak out a change of clothes and anything else that we may need ‘just in case’. You could feel the excitement in the air. Fred become younger and taller. He was nervous but we toilet timed him for weeks knowing the right time to leave and the right time to return.
The physiotherapist and I dressed up (out of uniform). It was our lunch break and our time off so that we could. Fred and Ginger donned their very finest – they looked stunning, like the elegant ballroom dancers that they were. As we escorted them into the car you could see their eyes starting to shine and their dialogue become playful – they were once again lovers and not dependents.
We linked their arms in ours so their gait would be stable and to all those who looked on we looked like a happy family. Once seated, the physio and I left them to it. They ordered what they wanted and led the conversation. We shared stories, ate and drank lovely food and laughed a lot. Fred and Ginger forgot their fears and their eyes truly began to shine. It was one of the loveliest memories I have. Their joy remained once settled back at home.
It was a day filled with both joy and sadness as this day also represented their last day on our allied health program.
It was only a few months later that news had filtered down that their 60-year love story changed to one of tragedy. A rapid decline in Fred’s health resulted in him returning to hospital and Ginger being admitted to high residential care. Their very last days were spent apart. Their worst fears realised.
Could things have been different – more than possibly – if Ginger’s dementia was addressed in the early stages and if Ginger could have had her cataracts removed before she became too fearful to leave Fred long enough to do so. If both she and Fred had made more plans for end stages of life and if Fred could have made a plan to protect Ginger should something happen to him.
There are no villains in this story, no one is to blame, it is a tragedy based on life’s unexpected challenges. But as with all stories, we can learn from it and learn from it I did.
It takes a Village was created so all current and future Fred and Gingers will have the peace of mind that their love story will have a happier ending.