Mother Jones

Assisted Living

A growing elder care crisis is making life hell for families. Maine is considering a radical solution.
Debbie Bourque with husband Roland, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease

ROLAND BOURQUE WAS 30 years into a career with the Public Works Department in suburban Biddeford, Maine, when his symptoms became too obvious to ignore. It was 2012, and Roland, 6 feet tall with a gray goatee, high cheekbones, and close-cut hair, was on street-sign detail. He would order the metal shapes and print out their vinyl facings—stop, yield, one way—which he would carefully adhere before driving out to install the new signs or fix damaged ones. He knew Biddeford like the back of his hand. But something changed that year. While out checking on a sign one day, he called in to say he couldn’t remember where the street was. Soon he was forgetting how to do the repairs. His supervisor called Debbie Bourque, Roland’s wife of nearly four decades, to touch base.

Debbie was also concerned about her husband’s flagging memory. Indeed, Roland had been undergoing tests. “It doesn’t automatically go to, ‘Oh, it must be Alzheimer’s,’ because you’re 56 and otherwise really healthy,” she says. But there it was: the abnormal brain scan. Roland had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Before long, he was let go from his job, and his wife, who ran a small cleaning operation, cut back her hours to care for him. It was “by far the hardest thing I have ever done,” says Debbie, a petite woman with shoulder-length, blond hair and blue glasses. “Never could I have prepared for it, ever.”

As Roland’s mind deteriorated, Debbie’s duties became all-consuming. Her husband stopped eating unless prompted and was unable to shower or dress without assistance. He’d be up half the night, confused, and would sometimes sneak out of the house, so Debbie installed an alarm system. Dipping into her modest savings, she hired a home care worker to help but could only afford her for three

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