It began almost playfully, like tiny hiccups in her mind. She would forget she had already changed the sheets and change them again, or repeat a thought in the same breath.
Then the illness amplified.
She grew confused by everyday tasks. Became convinced her parents were still alive and insisted upon a visit. At social gatherings, she was anxious and fearful. She forgot how to sew and cross-stitch. Forgot the faces of her children.
She did remember her name. Alma Shaver. But not her age. Eighty.
And sometimes, she did not know her husband.
He was Richard Shaver, a man whose wife of 60 years had been found by dementia, that thief that robs the minds of 50 million people worldwide. So common, yet so personally cruel — it comes with no road map for those tending to the afflicted.
For a while, her husband managed. He would sit next to his wife and rub her hand, her knee, to try to calm the unease. He left notes explaining simple tasks. If she was stuck repeating herself, he asked yes or no questions to break the cycle: Did you graduate in 1957, Alma? Why, yes.
When visiting family, he picked out her clothes, usually the beige sweatshirt with the collar and a bird stitched on the front. He resorted to fast food in the drive-through lane so she wouldn't have to get out of the car.
By the spring of this year, things had gotten worse, as they always do with an illness that takes and takes and takes. She had slipped beyond a murky fog that her husband could not join.
He waited until the two were alone in their Brick, New Jersey, home, a white colonial they had bought in retirement because the deck opened up to a lagoon.
Why didn't she get Alzheimer's? Answer could hold key to fighting disease
A blood test for Alzheimer's? It's coming, scientists report
Five ways to decrease Alzheimer's risk by 60 per cent
It was a warm Sunday afternoon in June, the kind of day where, in healthier times, he would have steered his boat out on the water, and she would have sat on the deck swing waiting for his return.
Instead, she was in the upstairs bedroom asleep, the only peace she ever seemed to find.
Shaver, 79, crawled onto the canopy bed — the one they had shared for years — and shot his wife. Then he lay down beside her and shot himself.
Charisma and laughter
He asked her to the Candyland Cotillion, a high school dance, in 1956. He arrived in a dark suit with his blonde hair slicked to one side. She wore a sleeveless dress and a circle of pearls. He swiped her dance card and scrawled his name across all seven lines.
They had known each other since childhood, not unusual in the village of Shadyside, Ohio. That night, Alma Archibald went home and declared, "I'm going to marry that Richard Shaver."
Two years later, they eloped.
They eventually moved to Landing, New Jersey, where they raised three daughters. By then, he had worked for Nasa and General Electric Co. in electrical engineering and was travelling often for Radio Corp. of America.
Bright and fiercely independent, he insisted on doing home repairs himself. He bought a motorcycle and taught his girls to ride it.
He liked to plan ahead, hiding envelopes of cash around the house in case of emergency and writing a guide to finding each one.
His wife was strong-willed and warm, meticulous about her home and her appearance. She had meals on the table at 5pm, dressed up as Mrs. Claus, led a Girl Scout troop, delivered handmade gifts. Families liked to use her as their emergency contact.
Friends were drawn to the Shavers' energy, charisma and laughter.
"They were absolutely soul mates — crazy about each other," said Gerry O'Connell, 71, who lived on the same block as the Shavers for two decades. "You'd never hear one say anything bad about the other. My husband travelled, and I'd get mad; I'm here alone with the kids. But Alma never would get mad at Dick. She was just happy to drive down in the snow to pick him up at the train station."
In 1992, the couple moved to Brick near Barnegat Bay, where they were a comforting sight in the neighbourhood — pulling weeds, riding bikes, holding hands.
At home and when visiting others, the two tended to be in the same room, often sitting side by side.
Richard Shaver had always been flippant about what he wanted in his final years.
He would joke about overdosing on pills when the time came or say he didn't want a funeral, just a party with lots of booze and funny stories. He referred to nursing homes as "The Place."
"Don't send me to The Place," he would say.
When his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few years ago, he avoided discussing it and grew evasive about the future. He dismissed offers of help and suggestions that he hire a home health aide. His daughter Karen McDonald wanted to buy him a home near her. He declined.
"He didn't want to talk about it — just like, 'Mind your own business. I'm taking care of it,'" McDonald, 58, said. "His whole life was always about her. She was the most important. Not the kids or the grandkids. It was her."
One of the few times he admitted to being rattled by the disease was when his wife lashed out at him, recalled his daughter Kristy Truland, 52.
"She started screaming, 'I don't know who you are, get away from me, don't touch me!' to my father in the house," said Truland, who spoke to her parents every day.
Her father had saved well for retirement, and she urged him to think about moving to an assisted living centre.
"He didn't want to be a burden, didn't want to go to a nursing home — none of it," Truland said. "And definitely didn't want to leave her for us to take care of. He would say, 'You're just gonna put her in a home.'"
His own health was a mystery. He complained of back pain but never revealed the results of doctors' visits.
At one point he declared that he and his wife were going to take a break from doctors because they didn't seem to be doing any good.
Their home grew dusty and unfamiliar. Shaver turned down his daughters' gift of a cleaning service. The home had once been a hub for the family, where the couple hosted children and grandchildren. But Alma Shaver herself had become childlike.
"The first time she didn't know me, I was crying in the shower," Truland said, "because my mother was gone."
In late May, Alma Shaver fell in the garage, nearly taking down her husband with her. The incident unnerved him.
She ended up having to go to the hospital. The following week, Valerie Dominioni, a friend who lived across the water, stopped by with a rose.
"Alma really appreciated it," Shaver later told Dominioni on the phone. "You're such a good neighbour." He sounded emotional.
Dominioni, 75, thinks of that call often, as well as something Alma Shaver said to her earlier that afternoon.
"We have to go away," she'd said. "You understand, don't you?"
"It makes sense"
Their bodies were discovered June 10 after police arrived for a welfare check. Truland, their daughter, had been unable to reach them for their usual phone call.
Coroner's reports would reveal that her mother tested positive for the painkiller Oxymorphone and had been shot in the back of her neck. Her father had been shot in the mouth.
The reports also noted that he had metastatic tumours on his liver and kidneys and had emphysema.
Authorities would file away the deaths as a murder-suicide, an act of domestic violence, and the news was posted on an anti-gun violence website.
Months later, the surviving family members have come to see it like this: It is not the ending they would have chosen. But they won't hold it against their father.
"If you knew him, it makes sense," his daughter Linda Shaver, 55, said.
They have no idea when or how their father acquired the revolver. Going through his things later, they found a box of pills with a note that had one daughter's phone number and a receipt for a recent hotel stay. Perhaps a quieter plan had failed. Their mother had been having trouble swallowing lately, a symptom of the disease's progression.
Shaver's death especially stung his daughters. They were accustomed to their mother not being entirely there. They never thought their father would soon leave, too.
But they are thankful to not be embroiled in a murder trial and impelled to now lead full lives, aware that the disease could come for them, too.
There is one thing that still makes them collapse inside when they reflect upon it all: the thought of their father in his last hour on that bed.
They imagine him lying next to his dead wife, placing the towel over his face, slipping the gun into his mouth, telling himself it was time to pull the trigger. He must have felt so alone.
A simple wish
Two weeks after the Shavers died, their family had a party.
It was not the one Richard Shaver had once requested in lieu of a funeral, but there were fireworks and flowers and spinning lights.
Their granddaughter, Alissa Ryan, got married.
Ryan wrote a speech for a host to read that acknowledged the tragedy but asked guests to welcome a new love story. It set the tone. Let's be happy today.
Family and friends danced, toasted, embraced, caroused.
There was a moment before the celebration that Ryan had wondered how exactly one continues on with a wedding so soon. But, while some were upset at her grandfather's timing, she was not.
"They were in pain for how many years? They didn't even know what day it was," Ryan, 31, said.
Her grandfather had, in fact, been aware of the upcoming nuptials. The only note he left behind was a blue envelope addressed to Ryan and her husband. Inside was a check and a card.
It offered no insight into the end of the Shavers' time together, only a simple wish from a man who had come to know what must be cherished.
"May you both have many years of happiness," it read. "May life be good to you."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE : 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE : 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP : 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202
Written by: Corina Knoll
Photographs by: Bryan Anselm
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES