Frank McQueen married late in life, at the age of 57, once he was introduced to the right woman: Etta Wilson Montrose of Wallace. They met in Ontario but settled in Pugwash after their wedding and will celebrate their 12th anniversary this summer. Those vows – In sickness and in health, Till death do we part – must resonate deeply with Frank these days. Shortly after their 10th anniversary, at the age of 84, Etta was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“First of all, she had a fall,” Frank explains.
Etta broke her hip and spent three weeks recovering in hospital, and Frank believes his wife started to decline after that.
“We noticed that she was forgetting stuff and getting confused. She started having problems that she didn’t have before. It got more and more noticeable. I hate to say this but you figure, ‘If I could only ignore this,’ but you can’t. It’s something that has to be dealt with,” Frank says. “It was hard. It’s not an easy thing for a spouse to go through that.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, fatal neurological disease for which there is no cure. It is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 64 per cent of dementia cases in Canada. Symptoms include having difficulty remembering things, making decisions and performing everyday activities. Of the half a million Canadians who have dementia, three-quarters are women.
It was a family member who brought up the possibility that Etta might wander away from their home.
“The greatest fear is that she would go out in the middle of the night and I wouldn’t hear her,” he says. “Goodness knows how far she’d get before I woke up.”
Since the couple frequently took their lawn chairs down to Eaton Park and watched the water for hours, Frank was concerned Etta would head to the water and that’s when he faced one of the most difficult decisions a spouse will ever be forced to make.
Etta moved to East Cumberland Lodge in Pugwash in November 2010.
“It’s a heckuva job,” Frank says of the decision and the resulting process. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Fortunately for Frank, Etta has 10 children. Some live in Ontario (including the daughter who introduced her mother to Frank) but the rest live in Nova Scotia, a few as close as Westchester and Amherst. He considers himself lucky.
“Someone having to go through that with no family? Gut-wrenching. I’m thankful [Etta’s family] was supportive. They realized, too, that she was different and felt that something should be done.”
According to Frank, after the assessment by the geriatric specialist, it was simply a case of waiting until a bed became available. Not everyone will find a bed in their home community but the McQueens were fortunate that when it was Etta’s turn at the top of the waiting list, the first available bed was at East Cumberland Lodge.
“Now don’t you think that wasn’t a hard day,” the affable Frank says of moving Etta to the Lodge. “We told her she was going there to visit. We had to tell her eventually that she was staying.”
He admits the first four months were hard.
“She asked ‘Why am I here? Why can’t I go home?’ She was constantly on my case: ‘You don’t love me anymore. Why did you put me in here?’ That was the first thing that came out. That hurt but I often think now how I would react. In all fairness, I really shouldn’t say anything because I don’t know how I’d react. All of a sudden, someone’s going to tell me I’m going there.”
With the passing of time, however, comes acceptance. The couple were spending Christmas Eve at the home of Etta’s daughter who lives in Westchester when Etta signalled her desire to leave.
“Etta said, ‘Frank, I want to go home.’ She knew where home was. I took her back to her room and she never made a fuss. It’s a lot easier than it used to be.”
But just days later, they would be separated further. The Lodge closed on Boxing Day because of a virus and Frank hasn’t seen his wife since Christmas.
The phone rings. Because Frank is hard of hearing, his phone is turned up so it’s clear the Lodge is on the other end. Normally a call from the nursing home means a problem but not today. It is the relief co-ordinator inviting Frank to visit his wife in a room near the main entrance. Leaving the dirty tea mugs right on the table, he pulls on his coat, eager to get there, to see Etta for the first time in almost three weeks
“Oh, I talk to her on the phone every day,” he says. “I call her and she calls me. It’s funny, if I don’t call by a certain time, she gets on the answering machine: Where the hell are you?”
At this, he laughs, a big, loud belly laugh. He is a friendly, good-natured man, kind and devoted. Frank McQueen may not be able to name every one of his wife’s 20 grandchildren but it’s clear that he will enjoy every lovely, poignant, tender moment he gets to spend with his bride.