DICK NICHOLS was thriving in the nursing home. Just two weeks ago, he threw his arms out and greeted Gil with "There's my beautiful wife."

Now he's gone. Pneumonia struck and he died over the weekend.

No more battles over driving and car keys, no more treks to the nursing home, no more Alzheimer's. Now it's just Gil at Bay Pines Veterans Cemetery, wearing black on a sunny morning.

Kids, grandkids and friends from support group spill from cars and gather around a white gazebo. A chaplain reads a poem about a soldier gone to the supreme commander. Three rifle volleys drown out the birds and a riding lawn mower putt-putting under distant oaks.

As in support group, Gil and Cheri Whitaker sit side by side, connected by hands and arms. Gil keeps her composure until a CD player sounds out taps and a folded American flag arrives on her lap. Then she weeps.

During the brief graveside ceremony, Mary Lorentz hangs back. She and Gil have become intertwined. Their husbands were physically healthy until pneumonia put them into nursing homes. Mary placed Dick in Menorah Manor because Gil spoke so highly of it. For months, they met there and compared notes.

Mary is rattled, and Whitaker notices. "Are you doing okay?" she asks, rubbing Mary's cheek.

Mary motions toward the now-empty gazebo. "I could see myself over there."

After the funeral, family and friends repair to the Nichols' home, bringing wings, sandwiches and stories. Gil sets up shop on her living room sofa, next to her best friend, Viola Schmalz.

Vi, Gil, Evelyn Ramm and Gary Smith were the support group's original four. Vi dropped out two years ago, after her husband died of cancer. But Gil is adamant: Dick's death will not keep her from the group. She will always go.

"I love those people. They are my family."

The swat

PHIL GERMAINE is working on his temper.

He tells the group that Carol tried to help with the dishes last week but messed things up. "I yelled, "Will you get the hell out of here and go to bed?' She was teary-eyed. I'm not happy with me."

This week, he lost his temper while Carol fumbled with clothes. He knows she can't do zippers or buttons, but even elastic waistbands befuddle her now.

"I'm having trouble understanding why she can't do repeat behavior. I told her, "If you can't find that sleeve, you are just not going to get dressed."'

"Didn't you go through this?" Whitaker asks George.

"Yeah. It's very bad," he says. "But you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar. You gotta keep telling them what to do whether you want to or not."

Then George startles the group. Last week, Lucille latched onto the cursed towel bar and refused to sit on the toilet.

"I had to give her a whack on her leg."

"Oh, jeez," Gil says.

"I pulled up her nightgown and saw red marks where I gave her a swat. It scared the hell out of me. I cut my nails down to the quick. That's what happens when you get mad. I keep telling myself, "I don't know how much longer I can keep doing this."'

Whitaker wants to deliver a stern message to George but doesn't want to embarrass him. She pretends to address Phil:

"There are different levels of abuse. I want you to think long and hard about that."

George gets the point. Not one to back off, he plunges onward. "She may have to get a swat again."

"Oho! Oho!" Gil says, rolling her eyes sarcastically at George.

"Hey, are you going to be there to clean up the floor?" he snaps back. "Sometimes that's the only way I can get her to the toilet."

Phil removes his glasses, rubs his nose and sighs.

The prune man

WERE ITS branches intact, Gary Smith's towering oak might shade three back yards. But it's naked at the bottom, naked in the middle and naked as far up as a resolute man with a ladder and a saw can reach.

Gary wants spit-polish order in his life; not even tree limbs are safe.

Coin collections sparkle on dustless shelves. Thin carpet covers the garage floor. And woe be to squirrels that vault Gary's freshly painted fence. Inside his sliding glass door, he stocks an arsenal of squirrel bombs -- bleach jugs loaded with rocks that raise an unholy racket when lobbed near furry intruders.

Tidiness helps when life keeps throwing curves.

Gary's wife left him 17 years ago. His father, despondent over two heart attacks, jumped out a fifth-floor hospital window. An only child, Gary lives with his 79-year-old mother, Florida, who manages 10 words a day if Gary is lucky.

She stares impassively for hours, docile and uncomplaining. Gary feeds and bathes her, shaves her legs, diapers her and transfers her substantial bulk from bed to kitchen table to plastic-covered couch.

During his 58 years, Gary never strayed far from northeast St. Petersburg. His parents ran a vegetable stand a few streets over, he graduated from Northeast High and worked the produce department at the Gateway Publix. His two-bedroom home on 74th Avenue is his last familiar haven.

"It's just me and my old mom. I guess we're the end of the line in our family."

Gary takes pride in his labors, and the older women at support group appreciate his toil. Not many sons would get so down and dirty.

But his frugal spending habits irritate them no end. Evelyn Ramm and Gil Nichols rarely miss a chance to rib him about being a tightwad.

For months, Gary resisted buying the most effective diapers and stuck with a cheaper, sloppier brand. When the doctor prescribed medication for his mother's constipation, Gary fed her Kash n' Karry prune juice and saved $20.


"I have great admiration for him," Evelyn says, "although sometimes I'd like to take him and box his ears."

Chronic tendinitis makes it hard for Gary to stand long. His job prospects bleak, he lives off his mother's money.

"I'm not skilled at a job that will pay me a lot. It just pays me to stay home and take care of my mom."

Gary worries that the money won't last until he starts collecting Social Security. He shops for clothes at Goodwill and Salvation Army. TV and newspapers provide his entertainment.

But even the Prune Man believes he got a bargain when he wrote a four-figure check to a lawyer.

ALMOST ANYONE can qualify for Medicaid by shuffling money around correctly. But the maneuvers are so complicated that even Cheri Whitaker blew it.

"I went to the Medicaid office with bills and bank statements, and they said, "No way.' I was the biggest horse's patootie."

The support group could talk about Medicaid for hours. It is the Holy Grail, the Lotto, the caped warrior who can slay the $5,000-a-month nursing home monster.

"I put everything into annuities," Ed Thompson says.

Millie Gundlach consulted some guy at her bank. "He said I should cash in all my mutual funds."

Jack Grable gave $6,500 a month to his son.

"Is there a waiting period of a year for that?" George Hoffman asks.

Such impromptu exchanges make Whitaker squirm with impatience. She knows that strategies that work for one family can ruin another. She pummels the group over and over with the one solution they don't want to hear: Get a good lawyer.

"Don't listen to your friends, don't listen to what we say. Go see an elder law attorney."

"That will cost so much," Millie objects.

"What happens five years from now and you are taking $5,000 a month from your bank account?" Whitaker counters.

"Here at the agency, we tell people three things: No. 1, come see us. No. 2, get a diagnosis. No. 3, see an elder law attorney. That's how important it is."

FOR TWO years, Gary resisted Whitaker's blandishments about attorneys. Too expensive, he figured.

Instead, he used his mother's power of attorney to sell her house and take back a mortgage -- a strategy that backfired because it created a regular income stream in his mother's name.

Gary ended up paying an attorney several thousand dollars to unsnarl the mess.

Now he's a convert. Amid his daily worries -- What happens when Mom dies? What if I get Alzheimer's? -- legal fees bought him an oasis of reassurance. The money is protected.

"If I had to lose this house, I'd jump off the Skyway. This is my whole life. Mom and me and this house."

Tuna salad

THEY EAT as they have thousands of times since she got sick. Same table, same chairs, same barn-scene place mats. She waits patiently to be fed, he chatters and fusses with the food.

But this is it. After lunch, George will move his 78-year-old wife to a nursing home.

Lucille has no inkling of what this day will bring, but George's face droops with fatigue. He has been up since 2 a.m., worrying about finances and the girl he fell for 62 years ago.

His hand shakes as he spoons a dollop of tuna salad into Lucille's mouth.

He talks of his father, who butchered meat for the U.S. government in the Panama Canal Zone. Every three years, the family would visit his grandmother, who ran the telephone exchange in Ohio, and she would weep as they said their goodbyes. "She said it was like we were going to the end of the world."


That's how George feels now. "This is the beginning of the end. She is absolutely going to be mortified, humiliated, to be put in there with people like that. It's going to break my heart."

No one event brought George to this point, things just piled up.

He fell asleep at a red light and woke up not knowing where he was. He pulled into a parking lot and slept for two hours.

He started washing Lucille from a basin after she became too unstable to stand. That ended their sensual showers.

Out of the blue last week, Lucille plopped down on the garage floor. George righted her, but she couldn't lift her foot over the 3-inch step to the house. Push, pull, he couldn't get her to move. He finally found a piece of plywood three-quarters of an inch thick, had her step on it first, then into the house.

His safety margin reduced to inches, George has decided to let go.

This morning he removed all Lucille's jewelry and slipped her two best gold necklaces over his head and under his checkered shirt -- the first metal to decorate his chest since Guam, 1943, when the Navy issued his dog tags.

As they eat the tuna salad, he pauses with every bite to stare at her, his jowly face grim and flush. He slides his hand across to touch her; she rubs it, like a mother soothing a toddler's scrape.

A thick hush sets in, interrupted only by George's sniffles, Lucille's steady "heh, heh, heh" and the chink of his fork against the plate.

He stretches plastic wrap over the last of the tuna.

"Come on, Lucille. We're going to get dressed now. We're going for a ride."

He guides her out of the family room and into their bedroom, away from her worn recliner, away from the duck paintings she bought for his office, away from the hand-carved chest her father, the Navy man, brought home from China, past the hallway photographs of weddings, babies and graduations that marked their lives.

George piles Lucille's suitcases in their Buick Regal, flips on the radio and heads for Bon Secours Maria Manor. They hold hands while Dean Martin croons Memories Are Made of This.

At the nursing home, affectionate fanfare greets the Hoffmans. Lucille's mother lived here until her death three years ago, and the staff remembers Lucille's gentle temperament and George's hail fellow nature.

They walk through the locked doors of the dementia wing and into the two-bedded room about to become Lucille's new home. George's gaze lingers on a sunlit patio.

"This is beautiful," he murmurs to no one in particular.

While George completes paperwork, an aide seats Lucille in a common room, where several residents watch a fish tank.

It's unthinkable to send a child off to kindergarten or camp without a kiss or hug. But people with serious dementia lack the sense of time that imparts meaning to such milestones.

Holding his emotions under tight rein, George knows he'll break down if he tries to say goodbye, and that won't do either of them any good.

While Lucille stares at the fish, he strides into the sunshine. Back home, he fixes a vodka martini and tells himself -- for the fourth time today -- that it's all for the best.

Who are you?

"CAROL AND I were eating breakfast Monday and she said she had a question," Phil Germaine tells the group. "She said, "I want to know who you are.'

"I said, "I am your husband. I've been your husband for a long time. I'm Phil.'

"She asked, "What's your whole name?'

"I said, "Phil Germaine.' My heart dropped right into my stomach."

People like Carol, who develop Alzheimer's in their 60s, tend to deteriorate more rapidly than people whose symptoms show up later.

Phil knows that. But doggone it, Carol looks radiant. She still delights in the Florida Orchestra's pops concerts. Just two weeks ago, she spoke poignantly about how her failing fingers have kept her from teaching piano to her granddaughter.

Now a light has blinked out. Phil can no longer count on his wife's recognizing him.

"This is one of the roughest stages," Whitaker says. "Someone who is cognizant but declining, but still has moments of lucidity. It comes and goes."

The question arose again as Phil and Carol went to bed Monday night: Who are you?

"I told her I was her husband. I said she wasn't the type of woman who would live with a strange man."

A pall settles over the group.

"Catherine doesn't know who I am," Ed Thompson says quietly. "She knows the dog, but she thinks her grandson is her little boy. My son and I are just two big guys who bring in her son."

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