Martin Glass presses a spoonful of creamed spinach to his lips, checking the temperature. Then he lifts the spoon to the mouth of his wife of 54 years, Joy.
“Spinach, hon,” he says.
Joy Glass’ eyes are distant. Her lips tremble, then open to the spoon. A smile passes over her face.
“I heard from the other girls that she said my name today,” Martin Glass tells a nurse.
It’s been three years since he made the decision to move his wife into Sunrise Senior Living of Pikesville, where the staff cares for her through advanced Alzheimer’s disease. The disease has robbed her of her feisty personality and sharp wit.
But it can’t keep away her husband.
Nearly every day, Glass drives to the assisted-living facility to feed his 73-year-old wife breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“I’ve probably told her I loved her and kissed her more since she’s been here than I ever have before,” says Glass, 78.
Glass believes that caring for his wife — even when she barely registers his presence — is a vital part of the marriage vows the couple exchanged on a June day in 1961.
“It’s the best part of my day,” says Glass. “Even if she doesn’t know I’m here, I can’t think of not being here.”
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Glass is one of several men who visit each day to care for a wife with advanced dementia, staff members say. About 5 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s, which attacks the brain, eventually leaving sufferers unable to speak or move.
Women are the “epicenter” of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Women make up about two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients — but they also make up more than 60 percent of caregivers.
The cadre of men who arrive each day at Sunrise stand out. Love, as lived here, has little to do with the roses, diamonds and fancy dinners associated with Valentine’s Day. These men show their love by spoon-feeding soup, wiping away crumbs and speaking quiet words to wives who do not appear to hear.
Among them is Jerome Hensby, 87, who grasps the hands of his wife of 62 years, 84-year-old Ellen. The two nestle close, like love-struck teens.
“Hi, can you wake up? Can you open your eyes a little?” he asks softly, stroking her cheek.
It’s been painful for Hensby to watch his wife, a retired bank executive, lose her mental acuity. The first symptoms emerged more than a dozen years ago, when she couldn’t remember how to open a steamed crab. The daily crossword became an impossible challenge.
These days, she appears lost deep within herself. But Hensby says she still speaks with her eyes.
“I ask her how she’s feeling, if she’s ready for lunch, if she’s comfortable,” says Hensby, a retired teacher.
The couple’s two daughters visit as often as they can. Hensby drives the 12 miles from his residence at Catonsville’s Charlestown retirement home to Sunrise each day.
He feeds his wife lunch, then putters around while she naps — tending to the community flower bed or playing checkers with a resident. He helps her eat dinner, then heads back to his home.
“I know she would do the same for me,” says Hensby. “We were very serious about our wedding vows. Our generation was very serious about it. Till death do us part.”
Like Joy Glass, Ellen Hensby lives on the third floor of Sunrise, which specializes in residents with memory problems. Plush easy chairs and polished wood tables create a homey feel. Max, the community cat, spends his days snoozing in a sunbeam.
Staff members say the visits from spouses help soothe residents.
“Something as simple as sharing a meal, if you’re used to having meals with your husband or wife every day, is very reassuring,” says Erica McCoy, coordinator of the memory care floor.
Dr. Alicia Arbaje, an assistant professor of geriatric medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says that loving touch can benefit even the most advanced Alzheimer’s patients.
“It can help the person feel engaged in the world,” Arbaje says.
And those who care for loved ones can also benefit, she says — although they must not neglect their own health.
“There is a sense of thankfulness and reward,” she says.
At Sunrise on this February morning, Glass searches for glimmers of awareness in his wife’s face.
She has gleaming silver hair, high cheekbones and deep brown eyes. In old family photos, she beams at the couple’s two children and five grandchildren, all confidence and poise.
The couple met in the late 1950s and married after a four-year courtship. They settled in Pikesville, where both had grown up.
Martin Glass, whose brother is the famed composer Philip Glass, owned a company that rented construction scaffolding. His wife was a teacher.
“She was the center of attention when she walked in a room,” he says.
Joy Glass was the disciplinarian of their two children, her husband says.
After their children married and moved away, the Glasses sold the scaffolding business and bought a second home in Florida.
About 14 years ago, Glass began to notice that his wife’s memory was slipping. He tried to compensate.
“I had to be alert to see where she put things, if she had left an ingredient out of a cake or forgot to turn the oven off,” he says.
He moved her to Sunrise in 2012, when he felt he could no longer care for her at home.
Glass still visits their home in Florida a few weeks at a time during the winter but arrives three times a day the rest of the year.
He raises a glass of juice to her lips, slices a chicken cutlet into bite-size pieces, blows on slices of potato to cool them.
“Here’s a biggie. Biggie, hon,” he says as he places a forkful of potatoes in her mouth. He rubs her back as she chews.
Bill Glass, the couple’s 46-year-old son, says he is awed by his father’s ability to adjust to his mother’s needs.
“My mother was a firecracker; my dad had his hands full both before and after Alzheimer’s,” Bill Glass says. “His love and dedication span so many personalities and experiences with my mom. It’s remarkable to watch someone whose love never ebbs.”
As the disease chipped away at Joy Glass’ personality, Martin Glass grew closer to his children and grandchildren, their son says.
“My dad will call five times on a birthday to make sure he connects,” Bill Glass says. “He has become more of a caretaker, not just to my mom, but the whole family.”
Back at Sunrise, Martin Glass unwraps miniature chocolate bars and places them in his wife’s mouth.
“She’s my sweetheart,” he says, smiling into her eyes. “Isn’t that right, hon?”
Glass wipes his wife’s mouth, then helps her up. She rises, then leans against him as if slow dancing.
“I’ve got you,” he says, and wraps his arm around her back. Together, they begin the slow shuffle down the hall.