WORRIED FACES flank the conference table as an earnest young man takes his seat -- in Cheri Whitaker's old chair.

When she quit her job here three weeks ago, Whitaker promised to continue leading the group as a volunteer. She also told them to stick together no matter what -- an ominous instruction that has everyone on edge.

It's hard to imagine this support group without Whitaker, their anchor since they began meeting five years ago. Could their bond hold firm without her?

They are about to find out. She has left town without a word to any of them.

Offering no specifics, association director Gloria Smith says Whitaker is struggling with personal problems and has moved to Fort Lauderdale to stay with her daughters and grandchildren.

"Just like all caregivers, she needs a break. She is taking care of herself and living by her own advice."

Bryant Brown will take over. He's trained in psychology and social work, but at 26, he lacks the group's experience by a half-century. Vietnam is a history lesson, much less World War II and the Depression. He addresses George as "Mr. Hoffman."

Then again, as an aide in a Kentucky nursing home, Brown doled out food and wiped bottoms. Dementia was his livelihood.

Gil Nichols, who volunteers at the association, knows Brown and gives her nonverbal endorsement. They sit together and touch hands, as Gil always did with Whitaker.

Brown says he will let them control the discussion, and George is happy to oblige.

When Phil Germaine stretches out a story about pills, George grows antsy and calls on Ed Thompson right while Phil is talking.

Another man rambles on. Because he attends support group so rarely, Whitaker always let him vent, no matter how long it took. But George is warming to his role as impromptu conductor. When Venting Man pauses for a deep breath, George calls on someone else.

Brown tells the group he plans to bring in educational materials and speakers. Is there anyone they would like to hear from?

Gil, who hung her head throughout the meeting, perks up: "Maybe you can get Cheri to speak to us."

Where is Harry?

FOR THREE or four weeks the meetings meander as Brown and the group size each other up. Multiple conversations take place at once. Ed Thompson does paperwork and leaves the room when his cell phone rings. Millie and Jack get so frustrated they think about quitting.

Brown gradually exerts control, ringing a bell when people interrupt. He goes around the table, calling on them one by one. Poignant moments return.

George: Lucille has been refusing food at Bon Secours, even strawberry ice cream. He groused at the staff until he tried to feed her himself.

"She wouldn't eat for me either. I had to apologize to aides. I thought they weren't doing their jobs, but I had to put my tail between my legs."

Mary Lorentz: Dick snapped out of his nursing home funk and surprised her with a precious moment of lucidity and permission.

"He asked me if I was okay alone at home and is the car running good. He said it was good that he's not at home and that I don't have to take care of him anymore.

"I said, "Are you sad that I'm leaving you here?' and he said no, he realized that's where he had to be."

Evelyn Ramm: She tripped on shoes and smashed her head on the laundry room floor.

"My nose was all bleeding. I was yelling to Arthur to help me. I couldn't get up. I don't know if he didn't hear or didn't understand, but he wouldn't come. He finally came and there was blood all over. His biggest thing was cleaning up the blood with a towel, not helping me up.

"It just hit me: What kind of life am I leading? I was feeling like my life was just going."

Ruth Mooney, the group's 81-year-old ham, frequently jokes about wandering: "I just leave the door open, but Harry refuses to leave."

Today, she is talking about her husband's eating habits when Phil Germaine interrupts to ask where Harry is.

"At home."

"That's a no-no," Phil says. He left his wife at home when he first came to meetings and the group practically ordered him to find a sitter.

"He can walk around the block by himself," Ruth insists.

"That's worse!" George chimes in. "You can't do that."

Ruth playfully holds her ground: "So I'm apt to be put in jail for neglect?"

"You could be," George says. "You don't know."

Myrna Seddon, who just joined the group, closes ranks with Ruth. "I leave my husband. He doesn't get out of the chair. You go to the bathroom and they're alone for five or 10 minutes. They could be down the block."

"He could turn on the stove," George says.

"He can't turn the stove on."

"Bryant, speak up!" George says, seeking an ally in the group's new leader.

"There are a lot of concerns," Brown says quietly. "If there's a fire, would they know how to call 911? They may not have wandered for five years and then just get up and go."

Ruth says a social worker is assessing Harry, "but he says he'll shoot every damn doctor he sees."

"Do you have a gun in the house?" George asks.

"Yes," Ruth deadpans, watching George turn apoplectic . . . before explaining that it's an old shotgun with no ammunition.

Because I love you

CAROL GERMAINE, passing rapidly through early-onset Alzheimer's, tells Phil she wants to go home. Phil tries to convince her she is home, but she keeps asking. One day, while Phil works in the yard, she wanders around the block.

Phil asks the group: How do I keep her from wandering?

"Home means safety, comfort, family, warmth," Bryant Brown says. "Maybe they are cold or need to go to the bathroom. Try fibbing. Say: You just came home. Do you need to go to the bathroom?' Redirect them, and when all else fails, give them a candy bar."

Phil resisted giving her an identity bracelet because he thought it was demeaning, like tagging a dog, but he got her one after she wandered from home.

The Alzheimer's Association and Walgreens give out free identity bracelets, but Phil has resisted. It seems so demeaning, like something a dog or cat might wear. How would Carol react?

"Get her a little fuzzy box, like it's jewelry," Brown suggests. "Give her a flower with it. Tell her, "It's just because I love you."'

Carol hardly recognizes Phil these days. He's just a guy who takes care of her. She particularly dislikes having a man help her put on underwear. "I hate guys like you," she grumbles.

Other times, she appreciates the stranger in her life. After Phil cooks spaghetti one night, she whispers to her daughter, "I think I'm going to ask him to marry me." She sings him a coy tune: "Getting to know you, getting to know all about you . . ."

Phil would delight in such tenderness if they were back in college, just starting to date. Instead, he must stifle his hurt and manage her behavior. He asks the group: What do you say when your wife of 45 years asks, "Where is my husband?"

"Tell her he'll be back in five minutes," Brown advises. "Then go out of the room and come back and say, Honey, I'm home."'

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