Like most of you, I decided long ago there’s only one reason I’d want to enter a nursing home. To visit.
But this week I learned there was one more.
That second reason hadn’t occurred to me until the Free Press received a request to visit a Winnipeg nursing home where a 70-year-old love story was hoping for a happy ending. It was more a plea, actually.
“I am reaching out to you for my parents,” Ray Junghans wrote in an email to the newspaper.
He and his bother, Marc Junghans, no longer live in Manitoba, which worsens the problem they face with their elderly father and mother.
The situation is that 90-year-old Erna is in a nursing home, but her husband, 88-year-old Werner, isn’t, even though he probably should be. Ideally at Tuxedo Villa, the same one Erna’s in.
That’s all the sons want, because that’s all the parents want — to be together forever, as they vowed on their wedding day nearly seven decades ago.
“In sickness and in health, until death do them part.”
Death was everywhere when they first met at the end of the Second World War, in her home town near the French-German border region of Alsace-Lorraine. He was a 19-year-old prisoner of war, a German sailor who never had a chance to set sail. She was a pretty and petite member of the French resistance.
They fell in love.
By late spring of 1948, they were married and, by the fall of 1952, they were getting off a train in Winnipeg.
They both learned English and worked their way up into good jobs — he first as a labourer, a plumber and ultimately the chief mechanical estimator for Dominion Bridge; she at Winnipeg Photo and eventually teaching French in the St. James School Division.
They brought up their sons in Windsor Park but, for the last 25 years, Werner and Erna have lived in a condo at Tuxedo Estates. There, on evenings that were warm enough, they would sit on their balcony, sip wine and talk with each other the way they always have.
In all those years, their sons say, Werner and Erna have never been apart.
Until last November.
That’s when Werner fell and broke his hip. It was only because of their father’s fall Marc and Ray learned their mother was also seriously ill. She almost died after Werner went in the hospital. Marc, who was in town this week helping his father, believes they were both trying to hide their failing health.
So they could stay together.
Erna’s circulatory illness was so severe she almost died. Which is why, when she survived, she was quickly panelled into Tuxedo Villa. At that time, Werner wasn’t considered to be a nursing-home candidate.
“He was panelled by the health authorities,” Ray wrote, “and it was determined that he was ‘not bad enough’ to warrant being in the same retirement home.”
Even after he fell a second time and broke his hip again in January, home care a few times a week was good enough because he wasn’t “bad enough.”
But then, just last weekend, alone in his condo, he fell again and lay on the floor alone calling out for help.
Four hours later, at 4 a.m., someone must have heard him and called 911.
First responders had to break down his door.
“I do not know what the health authorities deem to be ‘bad enough,’ ” Ray said, “but I would think that the possibility of dying alone on the floor of your condo would certainly qualify.”
It was just days before that, on June 5 — their 66th wedding anniversary — Werner expressed his feelings, and confusion, in these words.
“What is this all about? Mom and I just want to be together before we die. Why won’t they let us be together?”
“This is killing them,” Ray wrote. “Not their age.”
Then Ray, reaching out to the Free Press for his parents, asked a question.
“Can you have someone go see them and put their story in the paper, and perhaps this might be enough of a push to get them together in their last days of life.”
On Thursday, I forwarded Ray’s email to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority for reaction. And then I drove over to Tuxedo Villa. Marc had managed to bring his father to the nursing home to visit for a few hours.
Werner and Erna were both seated in wheelchairs, both smiling and talkative. All that seemed to be missing was a balcony and a bottle of wine.
“I like it here,” Erna said with a big smile.
But even with all the people around, even though Werner visits occasionally and calls five or six times a day, she is lonely for her husband. And worries about him being alone and falling again.
“Together would be so much better,” she said. “For what little time we have left.”
We visited for more than an hour.
By the time I left, the WRHA had emailed a response.
“We will be contacting this family and working with them to ensure an assessment is completed and to review what appropriate options there are to reunite this couple.”
Happy Father’s Day, Werner.