Helping a dying man, your husband, as he is slowly diminishing, slowly dying, shrinking, is also gratifying. In my case, this has enabled me to stretch my capacity for loving without expecting anything in return.

These days I can’t seem to remember why I am still alive.

It seems a lot of wasted material to keep an old woman alive. But I suppose, since the hairdresser has not yet re-opened, and I do not want to be dead with all that hair on my head, I need to find something to do – which is problematic.

I was sharing with Jill, who is 72, that when I was 70, Harold and I moved from Boston to Paris.  We had bought a tiny house on the river Loire some ten years earlier and now hoped to spend our remaining years in France. We took all of our belongings with us on a freighter and settled in an apartment in the center of Paris. Because it was a non-tourist neighborhood, it was not expensive, but still gave us what we wanted.

My life was full and rich and varied and interesting with lots of people and ideas and things to do. I got into serious gardening in our little house on the Loire. Many house guests in Châtillon and then in Briare, again full and interesting, and connected to a wonderfully interesting group of people.

I didn’t feel old. I visited my children in the U.S for my 80th birthday so that my children would not have to travel for that occasion. We had the Parisian celebration later one beautiful evening at Sylvia Pollock’s marvelous house in Paris.

All went well until we returned once more ten years ago to see what was happening to Harold.  He had had a series of mini strokes and I was worried. He was diagnosed with an Alzheimer dementia, stopped being able to walk and of course our lives took an important turn.

Even that was still a life with meaning, with people who were important to us, an effort to make this new world work for us, find connections to people with whom we were ‘sympatico’ both intellectually and politically; everything that has always mattered to us.

But then Harold dropped off into another world, into a world of the demented, in which I could not share my life with him any more. He needed physical help I was not able to provide.  Meanwhile time had marched on. My ninetieth birthday was around the corner and our lives had changed drastically.

Once more we needed to move.  This time into a residence for old and or disabled people, a residence for what is known here as Independent Living (as though there is such a thing) and Assisted Living with a third unit for people who need the safety of a locked unit.

There was not much choice since we wanted to live in the same place. I also wanted to be able to be alone. Being together under such emotionally draining circumstances all day and all night, seemed too difficult.

This place provides that independence for us.

Why am I telling you all that?

Because today I was shocked to discover that the meaning of my life has become my need to lighten Harold’s life, to try to help him have a less sad and empty life that he would have were I not a part of his days.

This is a little like being a young mother when your life is filled with your taking care of your babies, but the difference is huge: Those small creatures are being helped to become good people and parents can feel creative, constructive, helpful, and important.

Helping a dying man, your husband, as he is slowly diminishing, slowly dying, shrinking, is also gratifying. In my case, this has enabled me to stretch my capacity for loving without expecting anything in return.

When I reflect on what it is I do during this isolation period the virus has brought on us all, it looks as though I have done absolutely nothing all day, all week, all these months, because nothing shows. This has exhausted me. I have no record, no memory of doing anything with my time. I worry. I try to make conversation. I feel guilty. I feel tired. I bring something to him hoping he will enjoy it.

I have nothing to show for my time.

It is not like gardening, or even housekeeping, or raising children. It is not like entertaining friends, learning something, reading with a book group. This work is technically empty but when I am alone, at night, before I fall asleep and go over my life one more time to judge what my role has been, weighing in to see if I have kept clean, I see that I have come out bruised, but still enriched and not seriously wounded.

Renée Levine is 95 and on lock down at the Crossings, the senior community she lives in. She has offered to write letters about her thoughts and the reality of this experience. If you have a message you would like to send her, please either email me at or leave a comment below and I’ll be sure she receives it.

Loving Beyond Dementia by Renée Levine