Ben Oliver gets his wife. It's early for guests, but he wants her to meet someone.
A cheerful stranger with a Mickey Mouse embroidered on her blouse waits in the living room.
Ben explains to Florence that he will leave their Leisure World apartment for several hours today and this helper will look after her. He has some errands to do; she can stay comfortable here while he's gone.
His wife doesn't speak.
The stranger says hello.
Florence raises her cane in the woman's direction and shoots it like a rifle.
Anita Davis, the professional caregiver, smiles. She knows the first day can be hard.
Ben shows Anita around the apartment, tries to get her acquainted with Florence and warns her that his wife will start asking for him a few minutes after he walks out. He writes down his schedule, in case of emergency, in shaky letters: "CLUBHOUSE I, OLNEY BLOCKBUSTERS, L.W. MED. BLDING - X-RAY, GIANT, RETURN."
Then he leaves.
His wife looks at the door.
Anita remembers her instructions and pops a Motrin directly into her new employer's mouth, hands over a glass of water, then puts in another pill. Florence sighs after she swallows, looks toward the ceiling, searches for her saint.
"Saint Anthony," she says, "today we start our day."
Anita looks down at her.
"Today we do."
Florence's fall at the Leisure World ballroom dance a few weeks ago - the first time Ben ever called the paramedics for his wife - was not her last. Since that Hawaiian dance on July 26th, Florence has tumbled twice more in their home. Ben was in another room both times, unable to stop her fall - her world suddenly beyond his control.
He had never dialed 911 before; now the paramedics were learning his address in this Silver Spring seniors-only community. Three times in as many weeks, they came to Leisure World for the Olivers.
After months of fighting this new reality, insisting he and his wife could carry on as always, Ben could no longer deny what was happening to Florence. He called his daughter. Can you stay with your mother, he asked. He left with the shopping cart, told Florence he was getting groceries, didn't add what else he was doing. At the Leisure World Medical Center, the social worker told him about agencies that place aides in the homes of sick people.
He returned to the apartment with a cart full of food and, hidden in his pocket, a red pamphlet listing caregiver options.
Ben knew what brought them across this threshold: It was seeing danger, up close. Florence wasn't badly hurt in any of these falls, but she could have been. He began to wonder: Was it right to bring her everywhere he went? Three years since his wife's diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, the fear finally took hold of him.
And when it did, he dialed the 10 digits that led him to Anita.
In the living room, the lights are out.
Florence ignores the stranger and sings "Que Sera, Sera." After a minute, the lyrics fade.
Anita figures her new, $15-an-hour job will be steady. She knows once people break down and hire a caregiver, they don't usually go back. She's starting with just Fridays. Soon enough, though, she'll be coming Mondays, too.
Florence stares out the window at what she calls her "crookedy" tree, its limbs all twisted. Anita talks to her but the words hit silence, falling unheeded into the soft pile carpet. Florence goes into something of a trance.
Sometimes the family thinks it's a relief that a part of Florence has gone missing, that she's not really there to think about what comes next, when an in-home caregiver will no longer be enough. Florence always was terrified by the thought of her own death. Ever since those seances her relatives held when she was a child, this devout Catholic has feared the end. Now, the family thinks, maybe it's better that when she looks into the distance all she sees is a crookedy tree.
It has been 30 minutes.
Anita approaches her charge.
"I think somebody needs to get up and dance!"
The 81-year-old Florence just stares at her.
The mantel clock ticks loudly. Two more hours pass. Florence sits unmoving for most of them, though she allows Anita to get her up to pace around the building - really an excuse to look for her husband.
In his absence, Florence won't eat. She won't watch TV, she won't chitchat, she won't even go to the bathroom. She convinces herself that her husband has gotten cancer. That's why he's gone: He's dying.
Anita tries to lighten things up, offers thoughts as chipper as the Mickey Mouse grinning from the pocket of her blouse. But everything is coming out slightly off-key. Anita wants to know more about Ben, but she keeps calling him "Oliver," as if that were his first name.
Then, silence again, except for that clock.
Florence asks a question, the only question. Where is he?
"Who?" Anita asks. "Oliver?"
Helen McKay savors her solitary ritual.
Every evening, she walks to the hard-hat area where the Overlook condominium is half-built. She used to sit on a bench and watch the cranes and earthmovers on Leisure World Boulevard, where her future home is rising from a pile of dirt. But now, after the work crews leave, she goes one step further.
The 74-year-old widow is still recovering from an injury she suffered several months ago during a Leisure World ballroom dance, when she fell on her back, fractured a vertebra and discovered a world of hidden threats other seniors already saw. She, too, looks for those hazards everywhere now.
But she also looks for her old self, the fearless one. Life is too dreary without her.
So she has found a new passion: breaking in. At the end of each day, she walks up a ramp leading to the concrete and iron skeleton that will be her new home. She makes sure no one can see her slip inside. Then, with the help of the building's bare light bulbs and her flashlight, she threads her way around. There are no brick walls up yet, so she's visible from the ground - like a doll in a giant dollhouse, if dolls had bright white bouffants and hearing aids.
Her boyfriend Peter was the first to learn about her adventures, and he quietly delighted in her daring. He sent her an e-mail, reminding her to be careful, signing it: "I lv us - P." He knows better than to discourage her.
But her girlfriends fret; they tell her she'll get hurt wandering around that construction zone. Not only that, her two sons warn, but she's trespassing. All of them make her promise she'll stop snooping around.
Yes, she promises, she'll stop.
They don't need to know the truth.
Ben is driving. He is alone.
Doing errands, his wife in the apartment with the caregiver for the first time, he tries to cheer himself up. He slides "It's a Polka Party" into the CD player and waits for it to do its work.
Closely hewing to the schedule he left with the caregiver, the 77-year-old retiree arrives at his last stop, the grocery store, right on time. He takes an empty shopping cart. If Florence were here, she'd hold onto this for balance. He misses her. Even with all her problems, he thinks, his wife is still such good company.
Inside the supermarket, he feels her absence in the aisles.
At least today, he doesn't have to worry Florence will stop waiting for him by the cash registers, get up and fall. He admits: A morsel of something like freedom is tucked inside this melancholy.
All this falling - now he accepts what's really at its root. A physician soon will re-examine Florence and confirm Ben's silent theory that she is not stumbling because she drags a toe or her ankle is weak, but because her Alzheimer's disease is worsening. Her muscles aren't responding as well to the complex task of walking.
The doctor will suggest that Ben buy a motorized scooter for Florence. And Ben, who always borrowed a Leisure World wheelchair because actually buying one would be an admission of his wife's infirmity, will agree.
But he won't agonize over it; he says it will be funny when his wife chases him around in that contraption.
Maybe he will work around it, lift her out of it long enough for a few steps on the dance floor. Maybe Ben, president of the Leisure World Ballroom Dance Club, just won't attend those monthly affairs anymore, since he certainly would never go without Florence.
The career federal bureaucrat takes a workingman's approach: He'll seek out solutions. He'll get her that newly approved Alzheimer's drug from Germany - memantine - in hopes that it will slow down her memory loss.
He'll dream up new ways to fight his wife's confusion. He already put a portable DVD player in the car to distract her during long trips. When traffic scares her, he tells her to watch the musical numbers from High Society.
Whatever comes next, he thinks, they'll get through it.
"There's a certain amount of resolution in all of this," he says over the supermarket's canned music, his voice matter-of-fact. "Florence is 81 now. She's had a good life and I have, too. You know, we're kind of counting down now."
So he cares for the two of them as best he can. The end is out of his hands.
He'll just take the days as they come, not knowing how many more he'll get. That joke about senior citizens never buying green bananas? Ben thinks there's some truth to that. This stage of life doesn't come with any guarantees.
Ben pushes the cart over the linoleum. His mind wanders. He thinks about his wife's last visit to the dentist. Two new cavities. In code, so Florence couldn't understand it, the hygienist blamed the Alzheimer's, since Florence barely knows how to brush her teeth now. Later, when Florence got the first of her fillings, the pain proved unbearable. Ben felt almost like the drill was in his mouth because he was the one who allowed it to happen to her.
Ben asked himself then: Given the far bigger threats that lie in Florence's future, would it really matter if she walked around with some cavities?
He approaches the line of candy dispensers and gets Florence some bridge mix. She likes this stuff.
Today, several days since that dentist appointment, standing in this supermarket without her, he answers his own question. Yes, if she gets a cavity, they have to get it filled. Because even though sometimes his fight seems futile, he can't just let it all go. He can't act like none of it matters anymore. He can't treat Florence like she has no future.
"I want her to always be optimistic," he says, "always have a certain amount of hope."
He triple bags the chocolates.
"So if it's time to go to the dentist, we go to the dentist."
He steers the cart toward the produce aisle.
"Just keep things as normal as I can. Just keep her happy."
Ben reaches the bin of bananas. He picks out a bunch.
He doesn't make a big thing of it, but there it is:
Six bananas - each completely, perfectly, brilliantly green.
Helen walks up the gravel lot, passes the no-visitors sign, checks to see if anyone is sitting in those cars on the construction site. It is dusk, and she clutches her jacket tight around her. She steps into the open building.
"I'm whispering," she says, like a character in a Nancy Drew mystery, "because I don't know - somebody might be here."
She climbs the concrete stairs with makeshift railings. She walks down the third-floor hallway, moving gingerly over holes in the floor that expose a steep drop to the apartments below. She knows the route by heart.
"This is the hall right outside my door," she says, stepping on plaster-board fragments, stopping under a coil of wire. She takes out the floor plan of her new three-bedroom and studies it with her purple flashlight.
The apartment has no walls, no doors. It is an exposed shell; a home only in her imagination.
"See, now we're entering the living room. We walk in here, this is the fireplace here" - she points to nothing - "that's a wall" - more nothing - "and look at this. Isn't it nice?" She points toward the sunset and her unfinished balcony.
Helen hears a dog barking. She thinks it's security. She freezes.
Her neighbors always ask her - is she moving in with Peter? The answer is no. As much as she loves Peter, as much as his company is her comfort, she can't turn her life into something else now. She knows he would never leave his frail wife for her. And a married life with Peter is not what she is after anyway.
Just like him, Helen leads something of a double life. She gears her weeks around her boyfriend, clears her schedule for their dates, saves up days' worth of thoughts to tell him in one great burst. But then he leaves. And she's on her own again. In the end, she is used to being alone. Comfortable with it. Good at it, even.
Everybody thinks a widow just wants to shake the stigma of singledom, the pain of isolation, the fear of dying alone. And it's true, Helen knows all those worries. But also in her solitude, she has found a sanctuary where she can be herself, fully, without stumbling over anyone else's expectations. A home of her own, finally. A place to live out her own life's meaning.
It is mid-September. Just beyond the balcony, the sky is orange and pink. A pretty view.
The balcony has no railings, just a low scaffold around it. Helen heads toward it, crossing onto the spit of concrete.
She has never had a view before. Not anyplace she has lived. She has always been on the ground floor.
Helen takes a step toward the balcony's edge. She's so high up, she's dizzy.
For a minute, she forgets the past that brought her here.
Pictures of her new life fill her mind.
"I think," she says softly, "it's going to be a lot of fun."
The sun sinks lower, the crickets hum, the sky glows.
And Helen stands on that ledge, alone, waiting for her future to begin.
The first dance.
Ben and Florence take the floor at their daughter's wedding: Bethesda Country Club, Sept. 12, 1981.
They learned to waltz for the occasion. Ben didn't want to embarrass his daughter on this important day, and his wife, Florence, wanted to be graceful in her long, gray gown. So the two spent weeks preparing, taking lessons, practicing the three-count rise and fall of this dance.
The silent home movie captures them in the crowded banquet room. The music must be starting. It's their turn. They step onto the dance floor. The pastime that will bind them together through their old age starts here, bathed in sunlight.
Florence looks at Ben and speaks. He answers. The words are lost.
The waltz moves slowly. Ben leads. His wife follows. He is tall, steady. Florence is strong, but she holds his arm gently and places her right hand in his left. They do a hesitation - a move little more than a pause - and Ben counts the beats.
He pushes up his eyeglasses with his thumb. His bald spot is starting.
Florence tilts her head, looks up at him as they pass the windows. They move together through light and shadow. The two do a half-turn and pause, then start again. With time these steps will become the language of their twilight.
The dance ends and the triumph rushes in, soundlessly.
Florence stands next to her husband, catching her breath, waiting for him to turn.
He does, and for a split second on this faded film, he meets her gaze - smiling back at her, grateful and content. They are complete.
The look lasts only an instant, nothing more. As soon as it's there, the camera cuts away.
But that look leaves an imprint, penetrating the frame, lingering like a song after the music stops.
Lasting like a melody, remembered.
A STEP BACK
Sept. 16, 1950: St. Stephen's Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.
"I was a very proud guy coming out of there. Very proud guy. Proud that I'd avoided making a fool of myself, that somehow I hadn't dropped the ring, but proud in the sense that I managed to marry somebody like Florence. There are so many ways to be proud."
A STEP BACK
1952: First home, Rockville, Md.
Helen McKay says she and her husband carried pictures of each other by the azaleas. "It was just a beautiful spring day. I think it was one of my happy periods."
The secret weapons
Outside the gate, at the Sandy Spring Bank, manager Judy Brock keeps the secrets. Please balance this checkbook but don't tell anyone, the women ask, worried their families will find out that even this simple task has become too much.
The Giant supermarket next to Leisure World is a testament to the odd business of old age. On its community bulletin board: Burial plot for sale. Home nurses for hire. Wanted: Used motorized wheelchair.
The old-age trade is unlike any other. In clothing stores, salespeople leave plastic baggies in the dressing rooms so that elderly women can put them over their heads while changing outfits - it helps preserve the hairdos.
Markets overflow with potions promising vitality. The elderly drain energy drinks like bodybuilders, buy up megavitamins, pop baby aspirins for their hearts. There's hope in this commerce, and seniors are buying it in bulk. - Ellen Gamerman
Facts and Myths
Myth: Heredity is the most powerful factor in determining life span.
Fact: Gerontologists say that only about 30 percent of physical aging stems from genetics, with the rest determined by lifestyle and environment.
Myth: Most elderly live in nursing homes.
Fact: Only about 5 percent of people over 65 live in nursing homes. Though that number climbs to 18 percent over age 85, most still live independently.
Myth: Most seniors become senile.
Fact: Only about 10 to 20 percent of people over 65 suffer from dementia. The aging brain indeed has a harder time forming new memories, but it also finds ways to compensate for such losses.
Myth: Seniors with physically healthy bodies will live long lives.
Fact: Strong relationships and emotional health also determine longevity. A study of people over age 100 found that most maintained a sense of purpose, often staying active until roughly a week before their deaths.
SOURCES: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Mayo Clinic; University of Maryland School of Medicine.
About the series
In 2003, Sun reporter Ellen Gamerman spent nine months inside Leisure World
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.
She 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.