The story of how a Toronto couple, married for 38 years, is coping with one half now living in a nursing home.
When Elizabeth Brown asked her husband, David, what he wanted for Valentine’s Day, she knew he wouldn’t request the typical gifts for guys: a watch, tools or cologne. In fact, his response was somewhat expected: A combo from Harvey’s—with extra dill on the side, of course.
David, 65, has been a resident at the Ellesmere outpost of the Leisureworld Caregiving Centre for 10 months. Elizabeth visits him six days a week. On Sundays, she usually brings David a turkey sandwich from Tim Horton’s, but she wanted to make Valentine’s Day extra special, since they the date also marked their 38th anniversary.
The couple married in 1976 and, though they had children shortly after getting hitched, they’ve always made an effort to rejoice as a couple.
“We celebrate every year, usually with two cards—one for Valentine’s and another for our anniversary,” Elizabeth says. This year, the pair ate hamburgers, hot dogs, and onion rings for lunch, and then flipped through their wedding album.
“She was a fox,” David says. For him, it was love at first sight, but, for Elizabeth, it was a bit more complicated.
“I was engaged when I met him,” Elizabeth says. She was living with her parents when David bought the house next door. David was a self-taught percussionist for years; in the ’70s, he played on The Tommy Hunter Show and worked with the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson. “He was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous—he had blond hair and the reddest whiskers,” Elizabeth says. “After a while, I found I had more in common with David than the fellow I was with.”
She says it was hard to break the engagement, “but marrying the other fellow would have been a mistake.” David admits he was afraid to pursue the relationship until a close friend pushed him to go for it. As Elizabeth recounts, “The joke in our family was, since David was only next door, after we married we just threw things over the hedges.”
But while they’re still happily married, it’s now been more than a year since the couple has lived together. David was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy on Halloween 2012. The disease is rare and has reduced his muscle control, decreased his vision, and slurred his speech. “It’s like he’s conscious during a stroke and he’s trapped in the body,” Elizabeth says.
“It’s getting worse,” David adds as Elizabeth clinches his pale arm. David is slim. Add a few inches to his fluffy white beard, and he could pass for a member of ZZ Top. “It’s hard for him to look at old photos of himself,” Elizabeth says. She places her hand on his wheelchair. “Look, my hair wasn’t white back then, either. We all change.”
Behind the couple, the relatives of other residents fill the foyer, as staff moves methodically preparing for a Valentine’s Day party. Residents are embraced by family, who help them manoeuvre their wheelchairs through the crowd.
Valentine’s Day parties at seniors’ homes are—excluding the age difference—almost identical to those at junior public schools. There are plastic red hearts hanging from the ceiling and tables, participants are decked in red or pink, and there’s usually a Valentine’s version of Bingo. However, unlike most children, seniors aren’t concerned about how much chocolate they eat or how many love notes they receive. For many residents in long-care homes, Feb. 14 is an opportunity to spend time with family, rather than seek romance.
Elizabeth believes Feb. 14 has become too commercialized. “I was in the drug store and there were so many last-minute shoppers, you couldn’t get near the card aisle. If you’re so in love, why didn’t you do this beforehand?” She thinks couples today are more concerned with flamboyant gifts than their commitment.
Many of the seniors at the Leisureworld party are in wheelchairs, some in stretchers. They sit and listen with admiration while a performer sings the Bing Crosby/Louis Armstrong standard, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Their relatives caress them as they watch the performance. Elizabeth says David’s illness has had a transformative effect on their relationship. “There were times when we didn’t talk about it,” she says. “That may have been our way of coping.” Talking about the disease more has made things easier; families like the Browns must do their best to maintain a positive outlook.
The couple has two children and three grandkids. “Our kids come all the time with their spouses and our grandchildren,” Elizabeth says. “We’re a small family, we’re a tight family.” Elizabeth mentions that David had a few stints at other long-care facilities before coming Leisureworld. “You make the best of it,” she says as she turns to David. “Don’t you think so honey?” David nods approvingly.
David’s days go by slow when Elizabeth isn’t there. He likes to hockey, but doesn’t interact much with other residents. He says Elizabeth’s visits are “exciting.” Elizabeth is an outgoing library clerk—not a librarian, she emphasizes: “We work harder than librarians; don’t get paid as much, though.” David is much more reserved. He doesn’t say much, speaking only when he has something important to say.
The couple can clearly recall their first date: The duo went to see The Longest Yard at Yorkdale Cinemas. “We were coming from Scarborough on the highway and we kept over-shooting it,” Elizabeth says. “We’d go around and hop back on the 401 but we kept missing the exit. We finally got there, got in line and the movie had already started.” They decided to go for drinks instead.
“Thirty-eight years doesn’t feel that long, but it is and so much has changed,” Elizabeth observes. Their first date didn’t go as planned, but the pair were committed to making the best of the night—and that attitude guides their relationship to this day.