Brahms' "Lullaby" fills the living room.
Ben Oliver has turned on the music box and tinny notes play in a loop, circling around like the miniature ballroom figures twirling inside it. Ben takes his wife's hands, lifts her off the couch.
"You ready?" he asks. "Here we go."
One step, then two, then three. A soft waltz on the carpet.
Ben can see Florence is tired. Earlier tonight, he tried to boost his wife's spirits, but when he talked about all the things they have to look forward to - starting with this evening's dance in the Crystal Ballroom at Leisure World - she just went fuzzy. So he took her to where the focus is still sharp, back to their past.
He reminisced about their wedding day, when he waited for what seemed like hours outside St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. - his bride lost in downtown traffic, Ben half-thinking she'd stood him up. His face flushed with relief when she finally arrived and they stood at the altar and said those words: Until death do us part.
The lullaby loops around again, but Florence stops dancing. She looks down at her long white muumuu and her purple lei.
"That could be trouble," she says, taking off the flower necklace.
Ben puts it back on her.
Tonight's the Hawaiian party. Everybody's supposed to be festive.
"You got to wear that," he tells her.
Is she too weary? Ben wonders. He has been looking for a sign lately, something to tell him when to give up these Saturday nights in the ballroom. He needs to know when to call Florence's last dance. It will be his last, too.
Ben shuts off the music box, gets Florence's purse and wraps his wife's hand around his arm.
He has abandoned the wheelchair for the evening; she can lean on him.
"Don't let me walk too fast."
"OK," he tells her.
Time for the tropical affair. This evening in late July has been a highlight on their calendar for months.
Ben's private background music - warring thoughts of future dances, final dances - loops inside his head. To end these evenings means surrender, giving up experience and connection in exchange for greater safety. To continue them means defiance, keeping Florence engaged in life even if it exposes them both to hidden dangers.
Tonight, defiance prevails. Ben leads Florence from the building to his favorite dance of the year.
She waits by the guardrail outside. He swings the Cadillac around.
He walks his wife to the car, puts her in the front seat, locks the doors.
Ben has decided they can keep moving forward as usual. He has pushed the dangers far from his mind.
But by the time their evening ends, that car will carry home an unwelcome guest:
A lasting fear, realized.
The bandleader gets in the mood as the Crystal Ballroom fills with dancers in Hawaiian outfits. There is more exposed flesh and frenetic energy than usual tonight. A dancer lassos her lei over her gray head stripper-style, a few women add hula moves to their rumbas, and a widower wears a shirt with topless island women silk-screened in the pattern.
Helen McKay makes her way to the dance floor, her boyfriend Peter at her side.
The 74-year-old widow has pulled herself together for the evening despite a ballroom collision two months ago that flattened a vertebra and crushed her confidence. She suspects her back injury is doing its best to turn her into one of those tiny old ladies. Since her accident in this enclave of senior citizens in Silver Spring, she has lost strength and started to walk hunched over.
Now her muumuu drags on the floor.
"I'm shrinking," she tells her friends.
But Helen is ready for her date tonight. She made Peter a big dinner - crab au gratin, homemade coleslaw and Hostess buttered rum buns - determined not to allow her back injury to pre-empt their romance any longer.
Her boyfriend holds onto her, matching Helen's steps as well as her outfit. His shirt, which once belonged to Helen's late husband, bears the same bold flower print as her dress, and they move together in perfect color-coordinated harmony.
Peter won't wear that shirt home tonight. It would reveal the secret life he leads here, far from his sick wife. So before he leaves, Helen will give him back his own clothes. She works to protect this affair just as she studies each step she takes now, looking for the equilibrium in both.
In the ballroom, her boyfriend of 12 years leads her toward a quiet spot on the floor.
He pulls Helen close. She leans into his shoulder, clutching him.
The band plays a slow song - "Always" - and Helen steps carefully over the place where she fell.
Across the room, the singles table fills with women wearing flowers in their hair. They know the Hawaiian lore: a blossom on one side means a woman is married, on the other signals that she's on her own. The women can't remember which side is which, but their single status is clear given where they're sitting.
Billie Saunders, the Ballroom Dance Club's second-in-command, directs the bachelors toward them.
She does the head count: 191 people tonight.
"Oh Lord," she tells her husband. "Another full house."
It's the widows who try the hardest to get in, Billie knows, because this night offers them one of the few chances to dance close with a man. Bachelors are in short supply at Leisure World, so the club imports single veterans from the old soldier's home in Washington and admits them all free.
Helen would never join that singles table - she doesn't like the idea of dancing with strangers and sitting in the corner away from her coupled-up friends. At Leisure World, having a partner can carry the power of a status symbol. Singles are never seated with couples - couples say it feels awkward to leave a single woman alone when a good song starts and everybody else wants to get up and dance.
But there are also fewer spots for single women - only room for about a dozen - and every month the widows do battle for a seat. Tomorrow morning, these women will be the first to dial Billie's number for one of the coveted tickets to next month's affair, interrupting each other on her call waiting for four minutes straight until every seat is sold. Last month, one widow eager to make the cut even brought Billie a bottle of Champagne, but she still ended up on the waiting list. First come, first served, Billie told her. Rules are rules.
From his customary spot by the double doors, Ben surveys the scene. As president of the Leisure World Ballroom Dance Club, the 77-year-old upholds tradition on these nights, rejecting requests for snazzy line dances where no partners are necessary. Ben believes a Saturday night ballroom dance shouldn't be singles grooving in a row with disco-style twists and kicks, but partners gliding together as they always have, the man's left hand holding the woman's right.
In the mirror-paneled ballroom, Ben sees his old friend, Helen McKay, swaying cautiously with her boyfriend. Ben leads his wife to the floor for a dance, too. They rumba for a minute, shifting in place, their signature spot dance. Here in this crowd of friends, Ben knows his 81-year-old wife still feels a sense of belonging.
Dancing has long been their constant. The Olivers danced at the weddings of their son and daughter, through the chatter of grandchildren, in the company of friends. They danced when it would have been easier not to, when their children's first marriages both collapsed, when their own elderly siblings died, when illnesses weighed down their every step.
The Olivers end their rumba. Ben takes Florence back to their table.
The strains of "Blue Hawaii" fill the room. The husband and wife sit, long past the thrill of romance, but listening like one person.
Ben's old Pulsar reads 8:30.
In an adjoining room, dancers form a long line for tea sandwiches and cake with sprinkles. Over the next several minutes, people swarm the buffet tables, leaving crumbs and an empty punch bowl in their wake.
Billie gets a snack, nibbles at it. From her seat, she keeps an eye trained for her friends, Ben and Florence.
The 76-year-old vice president of the club always looks out for the Olivers - not just by knowing where they are on dance nights, but in a more personal sense. If people complain that Florence said something outlandish, Billie won't hesitate to scold them. "That's just Florence, and Florence has Alzheimer's," she'll say. And that'll be the end of that.
Billie's mother had the disease. The old woman once said, "I used to have a daughter named Billie but I don't know what happened to her," even though Billie insisted her mother move in and cared for her until her death.
So Billie understands what life is like for the Olivers.
It's 8:45. Ben usually comes back to his table about now, carrying a plate of snacks for Florence. But Billie doesn't see him. She asks her husband: Where did Ben go?
Billie knows how much these Saturday nights mean to Ben, how they act as a haven from the siege of old age. She herself kept coming last year even after a Leisure World resident backed his car into her in the parking lot and broke four of her vertebrae. Even after she slipped on some punch at a Saturday night dance and broke her arm.
"Keep dancin,' " Ben always writes in the Ballroom Dance Club notices that run in the "Leisure World News." So that's what she does.
More minutes pass. Billie looks around again. Florence's pocketbook sits on the table next to the crepe-paper pineapple centerpiece. But Billie can't find a trace of the Olivers. She gets up, tells her husband she'll be right back and hustles outside the ballroom.
It's just not like Ben. If he'd left, he would have said something. Somebody has to pay the band, somebody has to keep track of the dance-night details, make sure the music and temperature and lighting are just right.
"I can't imagine" Billie says, scanning the hallways. "I wonder if he took her home."
Florence lies on the gray tile of the bathroom floor.
Her voice is small.
Ben has rushed down the clubhouse hallways in search of aid. In the last frantic minutes, he has spotted Billie outside the ballroom. He hurries toward her, his brow damp with sweat, his voice shaking.
"Florence has fallen!"
Those three words: threatening everything. All those times he said he could handle it on his own, all those times he refused relief for his wife's care - now he can't lift her. He is too scared.
"Can you please find someone to help her?"
Ben hurries back to Florence. His hands, which always rattle with tremors, shake even harder now. His wife looks up at him from the cold floor.
"I don't know how to move."
"I know," he tells her.
The chatter of walkie-talkies enters the bathroom before the paramedics do. A handsome emergency medical technician leans over Florence.
"What is your name?"
"My name is Cinderella."
Ben jumps in. "Her name is Florence."
The paramedics look so young. They are calm as they snap on their purple plastic gloves and run through their checklist:
Are you in pain? Did you pass out? Did you lose your balance? Where did this blood come from?
"I think she just ran out of gas," Ben says, answering for her. "She was exhausted and she just ... "
He unfolds his arms and drops them - like that, useless. His wife has never fallen like this before, and Ben has never had to call the paramedics for her. When the young men ask, he blames her weak ankle. He says nothing else.
"How about we check you out real quick?" one of the paramedics asks Florence. "Would you like to go to the hospital?"
She doesn't answer. The men lift her into a wheelchair someone has found outside the ballroom.
"What's hurting - the knee, Scooter?"
When the snack break started, Ben had walked his wife down two long corridors to this remote ladies room. He'd come all the way here, self-conscious about lingering outside a more crowded restroom, ready to go in if she needed him. Sure enough, she'd struggled in the stall, and he'd come to get her out. But as he tried to help, she hit the ground.
Amid the turmoil, a scab on his arm opened. The blood in the bathroom is his.
The paramedics urge Florence to go to the hospital.
Ben asks her to consider their offer, tells his wife she is getting some good advice, but then stacks the odds against such a trip by asking if she'd rather spend the night in the emergency room or go home and get some sleep in their own bed. Florence has never spent a night in the ER. And Ben knows a trip to the hospital would be one milestone too many on this night.
"I'd rather go home."
"We'll do that," Ben tells her, "if that will make you happy."
He reasserts his will over an evening that has spun beyond his control. Just get home, he tells himself, make things as they are every night - Florence in bed, next to him, a light on to comfort her until morning as always. That's what he wants, too.
His wife looks at him.
"It's all your fault."
"That's right," he says.
The medics take Florence's vital signs. She's strong. Her blood pressure is better than theirs. But the outsiders also study what can't be measured on their equipment. It's clear something is not right. Florence blanks on her own age. She tells them that her back feels dizzy. She calls her pain "a Christmas game."
One of the medics looks hard at Ben.
"Any medical history I should know about?"
Ben does the inventory: She takes pills for elevated blood pressure and high blood sugar, he says, and both her hips have been replaced. She suffers backaches from sciatica as well as a weak left ankle that sometimes trips her.
Then he stops.
The paramedics wait.
The Alzheimer's lurks like an insult that everyone hears but no one voices. For months, Ben has told himself that Florence's walking problems stem from that ankle, that fixable joint, not the onward march of a disease that is undoing everything his wife ever learned. Tonight, he holds fast to his silence.
The notes of "Kansas City" drift from the ballroom, down the hallways, over the paramedics.
"Looks like a pretty nice party going on in there."
"Oh, yeah," Ben tells the men. "It's our monthly dance. Got about 200 people in there."
Outside the restroom, the paramedics wrap up. Florence tries some small talk. "This is what I get for wearing the wrong dress on the right day," she tells them. Then she falls silent again, waiting for her husband to make this all go away.
Ben gets the car. He puts her inside. The door slams.
The sounds of the ballroom fade behind them as they head for home.
On the dance floor, Ben's rules fall away.
The band plays music for the electric slide, on request, and revelers try out their disco moves. It's not traditional ballroom at all - it's not even a partner dance - and Ben would frown on it if he were here.
But he isn't.
He left five minutes ago.
At her table, Helen savors her triumph.
"I danced a lot!" she tells her friends.
Forget that dragging muumuu, Helen thinks, she danced more tonight than she has since she got hurt, even to some fast songs. She starts thinking: it's not one big catastrophe that threatens her, but the accumulation of smaller hurts like this one. So, she tells herself, just don't let them add up.
There's an aqua dance class at the pool. She could enroll in that. And she could tape Regis and Kelly, the show she got hooked on while she was laid up, and do physical therapy in the mornings instead of watching TV.
She has a new mission now: getting back what she lost.
Peter leads her toward the door, carrying her orthopedic pillow. Helen grips her back, waves good-bye to her friends and then clasps Peter's hand. She hates that she has to leave early on one of their only late-night dates, but the pain is setting in again. She's glad that at least she and Peter got to waltz to her favorite song, the one that asks, "Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?"
Once they get to her apartment, she will give Peter a soda for the road, some cookies and a kiss at her door. She will hang up the old blue-green Hawaiian shirt that he wore tonight, and she will spend the rest of the evening on her own. Helen is accustomed to this routine. Sometimes, she thinks, she is as used to caring for herself as those women at that singles table.
A half-hour after Helen leaves, at 10:30, the last song plays. All the dancers join hands and sing "God Bless America" - a tradition Florence encouraged back when she helped Ben run the club, before she got sick.
Inside the ballroom, most everyone has no idea what happened to the Olivers tonight. This place still feels like a refuge to them.
As the dance floor empties, Billie collects the pineapple decorations from the tables, tosses out some cake-smeared snack plates, tells the band they did a good job tonight. She leaves. The ballroom sits dark behind her.
Tomorrow morning, she will wake worrying about Florence. At exactly 10:15 a.m., the phone will ring in Billie's home, and it won't stop for 45 minutes, until she has taken every reservation for next month's dance. But before she sells a single ticket, before she even jots her own name on her yellow legal pad, Billie will decide to be hopeful.
And she will do what she always does. On the top of her reservations list, she will write:
"Ben and Florence."
A new reality, and a room with a view. In the Today section.
Dangers real and imagined
The Leisure World Special Police see everything: The man bleeding around his eyes who said he just finished working on a streetcar, the woman who accused her neighbor of turning into a devil, the neighbor who kept hearing "little people" running around her apartment even after security searched it twice and assured her no one was there.
If residents with medical alert systems don't use their phones for 24 hours, security gets a signal and makes sure those folks are still up and moving. The guards occasionally check buses entering the grounds to see that strangers are not sneaking inside. The ranks of Leisure World's special police are armed, though usually their jobs are as simple as helping a senior citizen into a car for a lift home from a doctor's appointment.
The Leisure World force files reports on dust-ups between residents - though no one called when two veterans argued loudly in the Stein Room bar over who saw more action in World War II. Security did step in, however, when a woman allegedly accused another of talking too loudly and shoved her at the buffet bar in the Cascade Room restaurant.
Not every encounter is urgent. A man filed a report after someone allegedly stole his copy of the free "Leisure World News." A woman complained to security that someone had broken into her car - an interior light had been out of order, suddenly it was working again - and wanted the perpetrator apprehended. But the Leisure World force lacks arrest powers - and even if it didn't, there is no charge of "fixing and entering." - Ellen Gamerman
Life expectancy reached an all-time high for all Americans in 2001.
The same year, the average life expectancy was nearly 80 years for women and 74 for men.
In 1900, the average life expectancy was 51 for women and 48 for men.
In 2000, people age 65 were projected to reach age 83.
In 1900, people age 65 were projected to reach age 77.
Whites ages 65 and over live on average two years longer than blacks.
Most older Americans die from heart disease, cancer and stroke, in that order.
Heart disease and stroke deaths are down by a third since 1980; cancer deaths have risen slightly over the same period. Refinements in the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease have propelled it the eighth leading cause of death from its 12th-place ranking in the late 1990s.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau
About the series
In 2003, Sun reporter Ellen Gamerman spent nine months inside Leisure World, a seniors-only community in Silver Spring, learning about what it means to grow old.
She observed every scene described in this six-part series except one. The scene she did not see first-hand - in the emergency room at Montgomery General Hospital - was reconstructed through interviews and is clearly attributed to the memories of the people involved.
All direct quotes in the story were heard by Gamerman; descriptions of what people thought or felt are based on what they said at the time or what they told her in interviews later. During the course of her reporting, Gamerman also reviewed private letters, an audiotaped memoir and home movies.
Ellen Gamerman, 35, joined The Sun in 1994. She has been a correspondent in the Washington Bureau for the past eight years. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
Chiaki Kawajiri is a native of Japan who came to the United States to study journalism. She became a photographer for The Sun in 1995. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
To read previous stories in the six-part series "Dancing in the Twilight," or to view a photo gallery, go to baltimoresun.com/twilight.