Joe & Flo: A Senior Couple's Struggle to Stay United Florence and Joe Chandler made it through 66 years together. But spending their last years in the same home proved nearly impossible. Reporter Michael Chandler followed her grandparents for six months.

Joe & Flo: A Senior Couple's Struggle to Stay United

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Ariel Sharon remains in serious condition in Jerusalem and has undergone another brain scan. We will have more on Mr. Sharon's condition and the situation in the Middle East.

But first, traditional wedding vows ask couples to pledge fidelity in sickness and in health, till death do they part. Fewer and fewer couples manage to live up to that vow these days, and still fewer couples live up to the 66-year example set by Florence and Joe Chandler. Reporter Michael Chandler followed her grandparents for six months while they tried to live out their final days together in sickness and in health. Her story begins at Silverado Senior Living outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.

MICHAEL CHANDLER: When you go to visit my grandparents, you have to punch in the secret code.


CHANDLER: You walk through two sets of double doors, sign in with the receptionist, and she'll let you through another set of doors.

Unidentified Woman #1: 407, 407.


CHANDLER: From there, I can't really tell you what to expect.


CHANDLER: Right now, it's sundown at Silverado. For people with Alzheimer's or dementia, this is a pretty chaotic hour of the day. The main hallway is a traffic jam of walkers and medicine carts. Stray pets are looking for their owners, and lost residents are looking for somewhere to go.

Unidentified Resident: Do you know what's going on? We don't. Everybody's wandering around like they don't know what to do, and we don't.

CHANDLER: You won't find my grandparents hanging out here. They prefer to be alone in their room together. Around the corner and down the hall, look for number 602.

FLORENCE CHANDLER: I'm Florence Chandler, former teacher, now retired.

CHANDLER: The room looks like a college dorm, with twin beds and paintings of horses on the walls.

CHANDLER: I'm 88, and so old enough to be lot older than most of you. I'm surprised I'm that old. Joe's 90--oh, 92.

JOE CHANDLER: I'm 92, yes.

CHANDLER: Joe and Flo, as my family likes to call them, are about the only couple left here. After a sometimes difficult marriage, they had a second honeymoon when they moved into a nursing home two years ago. Now living in a world of widows and widowers, they have a special status. The caregivers dress them in matching outfits, and other residents gaze at them longingly as they hold court in the dining room. But they might not be able to stay together. My grandparents are growing apart in their old age. Grandmother had a stroke last year that left her in a wheelchair. She's had heart problems and breast cancer.

CHANDLER: I've been very fortunate, for one thing. I've kept my mind. My memories are good and I'm quite sure I don't do anything silly or nonsensical the way Alzheimer's people do.

CHANDLER: One of those Alzheimer's people is her husband. Joe has a healthy body, but he's losing his mind. And already that has begun to turn them into strangers.


CHANDLER: The story of how my grandparents found each other is a family legend.

ALAN CHANDLER: They met right after college.

CHANDLER: Here's my Uncle Alan.

CHANDLER: Dad got a job teaching a little town--I think Helper, Utah--and he was the coach.

CHANDLER: Helper was a little mining town in central Utah. It's what my grandfather liked to call `a wide-open town,' with lots of gambling and prostitution. In other words, just the right place for a cowboy from the rugged countryside to meet a nice Mormon girl from Salt Lake City.

CHANDLER: She was working down there, too. It was one of the WPA projects, you know, that Roosevelt put in place during the Depression. And she headed up a government-run nursery.

NEAL CHANDLER: My father was walking down the street with a friend and saw my mother on the other side of the street...

CHANDLER: This is my dad.

CHANDLER: ...and said to his friend, `That's the woman I'm going to marry.' And he did.


CHANDLER: Do you remember what you said the day when you saw Florence for the first time?

CHANDLER: I think I remember.

CHANDLER: What was it?

CHANDLER: Look at those legs.


CHANDLER: Oh, he was the handsomest guy I'd ever seen. Really. He was a good-looking man.


CHANDLER: It's a warm July evening and Joe and I are across the parking lot from Silverado tossing bread crumbs to the ducks in a small pond.

CHANDLER: There it comes again out of the water or off the ground.

CHANDLER: Grandmother stayed in the room. She doesn't really go outside.

Want to throw it in and see if they come?

CHANDLER: Here we are, lady. I hope she comes again. Here, come on, you gal.

CHANDLER: I try to talk to Joe, but our conversation is disjointed. So I just hold his hand and we stare up at the mountains that rim the Salt Lake Valley.

CHANDLER: Over there.

CHANDLER: When we do talk, our conversation turns into more of a game where I test his memory.

Who am I?

CHANDLER: You're Neal's daughter. Yes, you are.

CHANDLER: That's good.

CHANDLER: Yeah, you're Neal's daughter.

CHANDLER: And who's Neal?

CHANDLER: He's my oldest son.

CHANDLER: My dad and his siblings have all left Utah, and there's been talk lately about moving Joe and Florence to California so my Uncle Alan and my Aunt Susan(ph) can keep a closer eye on them.

CHANDLER: I'll stay here. I'd rather stay here.

CHANDLER: How come?

CHANDLER: Well, I'm familiar with this territory. I am familiar with it.

Woman #1: (Singing) Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don't...

CHANDLER: (Singing) Fence me in.

CHANDLER: I stop by Silverado one afternoon and find Joe is sitting in the second row of a crowded sing-a-long with the recreational therapist.

CHANDLER: (Singing) Don't fence me in.

CHANDLER: Joe is here alone. Grandmother's gone. She moved to California without him. Uncle Alan bought two plane tickets and they left in a hurry. Things were starting to fall apart.

SUSAN: She was unhappy all the time and I think it was so much pressure on my dad. He couldn't make her OK.

CHANDLER: This is my Aunt Susan.

SUSAN: He got angry and frustrated and it started coming out all over the place.

CHANDLER: First, Joe started threatening the staff. Then he started hitting my grandmother.

SUSAN: They couldn't stay together 'cause she wasn't safe anymore.

CHANDLER: As the dementia has progressed, my grandfather has become a real problem case.

SUSAN: He will swing at someone, punch someone if they don't duck. Someone trying to put on his boots, he might even try and kick him.

CHANDLER: This was a man who ran for mayor of Salt Lake City, who started his own chain of clothing stores and who loved nothing more than to be alone out at the ranch riding his horses.

SUSAN: I think it's being pushed and poked and stuck with a needle for blood and rolled over and wearing diapers. Over the years, he had actually told me that it was his plan, if it looks like things were going to get bad, he was planning to kill himself. And he had guns. He had shotguns.

CHANDLER: (Singing) Don't fence me in.

CHANDLER: What are you doing today?

CHANDLER: Nothing really. Just waiting.

CHANDLER: Are you going to move today?

CHANDLER: No, I'm not. Not today. Maybe next week. Maybe next week.

CHANDLER: I think we are going to move today, actually.

CHANDLER: Actually, we will be moving--to California?

CHANDLER: We're going to go Sandy, out by horse country.

CHANDLER: Oh. Will I have my horses with me?

CHANDLER: Well, I don't think you have any horses anymore.

CHANDLER: Oh. Who will be with me?

CHANDLER: Instead of moving him to California right away to be with grandmother, my family is hoping Joe will calm down first. In the meantime, Silverado costs $8,000 a month, and like a lot of places, it doesn't accept Medicaid. No one's sure where the money's going to come from, so Uncle Alan finds another place for Joe. It doesn't have licensed nurses on staff, but it's cheaper. Only a few days later, he has to move back. The caregivers at the new place had found him sitting in another woman's room in the middle of the night. She was on the floor and her face was bruised. No one really knows what happened.

Unidentified Woman #3: Dr. Sharif(ph), please call 9576.

CHANDLER: I used to brag about your grandfather being the nicest man because he never got angry. And he didn't. He's a sweet guy.

CHANDLER: Back in California, Grandmother's not doing well. She's in the hospital for heart problems and she's been crying and missing Joe a lot.

Unidentified Woman #4: Can we move you a little? When was the last time? Your bottom must be sore is what I'm thinking.

CHANDLER: With her hospital gown hanging loose, I can clearly see my grandmother's pacemaker. It's a nine-volt, battery-shaped box implanted under her skin where her breast used to be before she got cancer.

SUSAN: Mom has such a strong will to live, and she's sick all the time and she's been on death's door numerable times. But she pulls through.

Woman #4: Pretty good, huh?


Woman #4: ...(Unintelligible). Let me get that cream for your bottom end here.


CHANDLER: Grandma's a fighter. She was a teacher and a union organizer for most of her life. While Joe was going to meetings at the Chamber of Commerce, Flo was out organizing strikes.

CHANDLER: I got in a fight, too. It was class-size. And I won. Not me alone, but the group of us ...(unintelligible).


Unidentified Woman #5: This is the room that is vacant.

SUSAN: And is that two bathrooms?

CHANDLER: It's a hot afternoon in August and Susan is touring a nursing home for her mother. The original idea was to find a place for Grandmother that also had a dementia unit for Joe so my grandparents could live together in the same facility, if not the same room.

SUSAN: But then Dad wasn't accepted because of the aggressive behavior.

CHANDLER: My family is learning that the world of institutional care is highly specialized. Each facility is designed for a niche market, depending on how sick or demented someone is. There's senior housing, skilled nursing, assisted living, hospice care, small family-run boarding cares and major corporate nursing homes. It's hard enough to find a place where one person can settle and then stay for a while, let alone two people together.

Two months later, I'm back in Utah with my Aunt Susan visiting Joe.


CHANDLER: It's October, and Silverado's decked out like an elementary school for Halloween. There's cobwebs and witches and giant spiders tacked onto the doors.

Unidentified Woman #6: Hi, Doris.

CHANDLER: Up ahead in the dayroom, I can see Joe as we approach. I recognize his pressed-blue shirt and cowboy boots, but he looks smaller, more stooped than I remember him.


CHANDLER: Susan goes over to give her dad a hug...

SUSAN: It's Susan.

CHANDLER: ...but she startles him.


SUSAN: It's Susan. It's...

CHANDLER: No, damn it, no!

SUSAN: OK, OK, that's all right. You can stay there.

CHANDLER: We back away.

SUSAN: OK. I'll come back.

CHANDLER: Susan starts to cry.

SUSAN: We've always been very attached to each other, probably that father-daughter thing.

CHANDLER: That was the first time he failed to recognize her.

Unidentified Woman #7: Are you having a hard time seeing?

CHANDLER: Back in Joe's room, Susan hands me a marker and we draw `602,' Joe's room number, onto the seams of all the flannel pajamas that she brought for her dad. I look over at my aunt. Her eyes are tired and red from crying. The last few months have been hard on everyone in the family, but especially her.

SUSAN: I'm really sad and maybe guilty that we just don't have a way for them to die at home. There's just no way it can happen 'cause home doesn't exist anymore and we all have kind of crazy lives that don't include the capacity for home.


CHANDLER: Do you remember your wedding day?

CHANDLER: Not really.

CHANDLER: Do you remember any of your anniversaries with Florence?


CHANDLER: The next day, we're back in room 602. Joe rests his head in one hand. I've resorted to our old game again.

Do you remember what Florence looked like when she was a young woman?

CHANDLER: She looked like she looks now. She's beautiful. Yeah, she is beautiful.


CHANDLER: Are we recording here?




Unidentified Woman #8: Mm-hmm.

CHANDLER: She knows then that I miss her, that I want to see her. Yeah, uh-huh.


CHANDLER: Susan is flipping through a stack of forms that are spread out on her kitchen table. There's an opening in one of the Alzheimer's places that she found. Grandfather can finally come here, just in time for Christmas.

The next morning, the Oakland Airport is crowded with holiday travelers and college students coming home from school.

CHANDLER: Grandfather.




CHANDLER: It's good to see you.



CHANDLER: Welcome.


CHANDLER: Joe's wearing his Stetson and a puffy winter parka under the warm California sun. He's smiling.

We get on the freeway, headed toward my grandmother's place.

SUSAN: What's the first thing you're going to do when you see Mom?

CHANDLER: Say, `Where have you been all my life?'


SUSAN: That sounds good.




Unidentified Woman #10: Hi.


Just inside, Grandmother's waiting for him in the living room.

CHANDLER: Hello, honey.


CHANDLER: I'm all right. And you?

CHANDLER: What do you know?

CHANDLER: Guess what? It's me. I want a kiss.


CHANDLER: Oh, I love you.


CHANDLER: And I love you.

CHANDLER: Go take off your hat and coat and...

CHANDLER: Stay awhile, huh?

CHANDLER: Stay a little while, anyway.

CHANDLER: Here's a flower.

CHANDLER: Oh, how nice. A gardenia.

CHANDLER: Mm-hmm. Yeah.


CHANDLER: Your favorite.

CHANDLER: Yes, it is.

CHANDLER: Isn't it?


CHANDLER: Ooh, just don't squoosh it.

CHANDLER: I finally found you.

CHANDLER: I'm glad you did.


SIMON: A few months after moving to California, Joseph Chandler died at a hospice in San Francisco. Two few months later, his Florence died too. Their family flew their bodies back to Salt Lake City where they are now buried side by side.

Reporter Michael Chandler produced this story. You can see pictures of Joe and Florence on our Web site at


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