At age 77, Ernie Anderson felt alone. His wife of 58 years, Joyce, was in the bed in their Rock Hill apartment with Alzheimer's disease. That means her brain is physically deteriorating. She couldn't walk, talk or do anything for herself.
"My wife, she is dying," Anderson said.
Anderson spent all day, every day, taking care of her. The couple met in the sixth grade in Iowa, he asked her to marry him and promised her only, "I would take care of her every day of her life."
Now, every day means feeding her soft foods, changing her clothes and adult diapers, bathing her. It became too much for one self-described, "tough old geezer" to take.
So this self-sufficient guy, who had just arrived in Rock Hill from Idaho to be closer to his son in Tega Cay, made a phone call that showed him that the end of his wife's life wasn't just about dying, but about living.
Anderson called hospice. He'd heard a little bit about it over the years, but like most people, he thought calling hospice meant calling in the Grim Reaper.
He had no idea then that the number of patients under hospice care had more than tripled in South Carolina in the past 10 years, as the population gets older and lives longer. All he knew is he didn't want his wife to suffer.
"Best call I ever made, showed me how wrong I was," he said. "I was afraid of death. Her death. But hospice has showed me death is a part of life. Her life, and mine, too."
A doctor determined that Joyce Anderson was eligible for hospice, meaning she is likely to die within a few months. Then Ernie Anderson and his wife, with two grown sons and grandchildren, gained a new family. For the past few months, the workers of Agape Community Hospice of The Piedmont have been in Anderson's Rock Hill apartment at least five days a week. Sometimes seven days. Sometimes at night.
There's a lead nurse who handles the medical treatment program for Joyce at least two days a week and another nurse who is there at least two hours a day, Monday through Friday. A chaplain and social worker come to handle Anderson's needs, such as dealing with grief and finances and more.
Most of the contact for both Anderson and his wife comes with Robin Epps, the daily nurse. Joyce's brain disease has caused her to physically and emotionally change from one day to the next.
"One day, she's fine, next day we think it could be her last," Epps said recently. "But I make sure she is taken care of. Every day that she has, every patient should have dignity. We are here to preserve the best life she can have, not just wait for death like some people think hospice is all about."
Her daily visits give Anderson a small break where he can get out to the post office or supermarket.
Social worker Alison Graham calls her role "extra emotional support" for Anderson. Graham checks to make sure Anderson's finances are in order, that he's taking care of himself while he takes care of his wife.
"We go to where the patient is, whether at home or a nursing home," Graham said. "Many times, like with Ernie, the caregiver is alone. He has this huge responsibility, and it can get overwhelming. Hospice gives him help."
A chaplain, if anyone wants to use one, provides spiritual counseling. Or just another ear.
For Anderson, like almost all patients, hospice care doesn't cost him a dime. Medicare pays for the Andersons' hospice, including the nurses, the medications, all of it.
"I'll tell you what these people are, they are saviors," Anderson said. "I couldn't do it without them."
Anderson never considered moving in with his son, Mike.
"Live with my kid? Never!" Anderson said. "I ran a service station. I ran a motel. I take care of myself -- and my wife."
Anderson's son in Tega Cay said hospice has been crucial to allowing his father to keep taking care of his mother during her illness. And yes, helping his father prepare for Joyce's eventual death.
"Usually, you hear the word hospice and you think 'die,'" Mike Anderson said. "But we have all learned that hospice means 'live.' Hospice for my parents has been a miracle, explaining for my father what my mother is going through and how he can keep his independence. They help in so many ways. They are an extension of our family."
So each and every day, Ernie Anderson helps his wife live when he knows that it could be her last day. He gets that daily help from hospice.
"I don't buy any green bananas," Anderson said.
A tough, serious, unbelievably loving man, is Ernie Anderson.
Some days, most days, really all days, Joyce doesn't know who her husband of 58 years is.
"I tell anybody, it breaks my heart to see her this way," Anderson said. "But at least I know that every day my Joyce gets the best I can give her. And that best comes from hospice. I would tell anybody, make that call. Let them help you."
Andrew Dys • 329-4065