Evelyn Baker stands beside her husband of 43 years, carefully smoothing back his silver hair. Bending forward, she spoons another helping of tomato soup into his open mouth and dabs his chin with a napkin.
About 20 other patients, some elderly, some not, quietly consume their evening meal in the blue-gray dining room of Life Care Center of Michigan City. Several are accompanied by family members, but Baker’s husband is the only one being fed.
“Here’s some water, hon. Be careful. It’s got ice in it,” she says.
Herbert Baker, 83, takes a sip. He says something unintelligible to his wife, who replies, “I know, dear.” He reaches toward Evelyn and opens an empty fist into her outstretched hand.
“He’s always handing me imaginary things,” she says, patting his arm. “We’ll go back to your room and have some candy now, OK?”
“He likes Mounds bars, and the little cans of fruit that you peel open, and jars of pudding. I keep them in his room so if he wants something, he can have it. Even those little sausage snacks. I never liked them, but he does.”
"Like having a full-time job"
Like most spouses, Baker, 63, dreamed of spending her golden years with her partner, traveling, relaxing, enjoying each other’s quiet companionship.
That vision seemed a happy inevitability until 1984, when Herbert was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. After an operation in September 1989, his condition deteriorated rapidly, leaving him with an irreversible memory and speech impairment and a tendency to become violent.
Since then, Baker, a city councilwoman and president of the Indiana State Cosmetology Board, has devoted thousands of hours to caring for her husband. She says she spends about six hours a day at the nursing home, feeding him, changing him, monitoring the staff’s care.
Often she visits him twice a day, at lunchtime and in the evening. “It’s like having a full-time job,” she says.
Meanwhile, she says, medical costs are draining her savings account and hurtling her toward bankruptcy. Over the past two years, Baker estimates that she has spent more than $100,000 of the couple’s lifetime savings on care for her husband. Not much of that savings is left, she says, and other assets are “up for grabs.”
The ordeal has taken its toll on Baker, a veteran Michigan City politician whose quick wit and plain-speaking manner have helped her win four consecutive elections to an at-large City Council seat. She cries easily these days when asked about her husband, her careful composure dissolving into tears of frustration and despair.
Several months ago, frightened by memory lapses of her own, Baker went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a complete medical examination. “I thought I was dying from some dreadful disease,” she recalls.
“I thought, ‘Have I got Alzheimer’s? What’s wrong with me?’ The doctor said, ‘It’s called S-T-R-E-S-S.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’
“‘Stress,’ he said. ‘You’re going to end up in the same place your husband is. Slow down. Give yourself some time.’
“I’ve got to let go if he isn’t going to get any better,” she says, sighing deeply. “Even the people at Mayo Clinic told me I had to give up on him a little. ‘Give yourself a whole day off,’ they said. Then I sit there and it’s noon and I think, ‘Are they feeding him?’”
"It would kill a healthy man"
Baker does Herbert’s laundry every day, returning with starched outfits for him to wear. “They laugh at that,” she says of the nursing home staff.
She also cooks for him, even bringing him a whole meal every once in a while.
“One day I made him sausages, gravy biscuits and fried potatoes. The doctor just happened to come in and said, ‘My God, what is that? It would kill a healthy man!’
“I said, ‘That’s what he wanted, so I made it for him.’ And he just ate the heck out of it.”
Sometimes Herbert does not recognize her. And sometimes he lashes out angrily, at her or at nursing home staff members. Baker says she recently restrained him from topping a medical cart.
“He used to say, ‘Oh, Evvie.’ That was the biggest argument we ever had. ‘Oh, Evvie.’ He always backed away from disagreements. He always said, ‘I’m a lover, not a fighter.’ Now he fights at the drop of a hat.”
His skin mottled by age and infirmity, his arms bruised and scabbed, Herbert appears deceptively frail. But Baker says he was robust in his prime, an avid fisherman who rarely fell ill.
He was also a quiet man and an insatiable reader, finishing three or four books a week, Baker says. Often he would sit silently at the kitchen table for up to six hours, never speaking, reading a favorite text. He is no longer able to read.
“We had a good marriage,” Baker says. “He didn’t care much for politics, but he got a kick out of me being in politics. He’d sit there and lick stamps for me.”
Baker met Herbert at 17. They wed three year later, when she was 20 and he was 40.
“My father disowned me,” she recalls wryly. “He said, ‘That will be the first divorce in this family. You’ll never stay married to that man.’ That was in 1948.”
Hurtling toward bankruptcy
The two spent their lives in Michigan City, Baker as a licensed beautician and Herbert as a Greyhound employee. Later, Baker was director and manager of Michigan City Beauty College, while Herbert became a self-employed truck driver.
The Bakers worked steadily and planned a comfortable retirement, when they could live off the interest of their lifetime savings. But in the past 24 months, Baker estimates she has spent more than $100,000 out of that fund to cover her husband’s medical expenses and day-to-day care.
The nursing home charges her about $2,300 a month for Herbert’s room and board, which Baker says she pays out of her own pocket. “That’s basic care, though. You pay for toiletries. You pay for bandages, you pay for prescriptions, doctors, dentists …
“I’ve gone through a lifetime of savings in two years,” she says. “We saved our money. We never owned big cars, we never owned a boat. But now they’re taking every dime that I’ve got away from me.”
Baker says she never learned of a 1988 federal law that might have allowed her to keep up to $66,480 of the couple’s savings at the time Herbert went into the nursing home. But now, she says, the account is close to depleted.
She knows she’ll have to do something when the money is gone. “They take all your funds, and then they just look at you and say, ‘Go on welfare,’” she says bitterly. “What do you mean, go on welfare? I’ve worked all my life.
“It isn’t just the money,” she adds. “I think I could handle the money part if I didn’t have all this pain.”
And she knows it may be years before the heartbreak ends.
“Every day I pray for him to die,” Baker says. “And then I fight like a tiger to try to keep him here.”