VANCOUVER – Every time the elevator doors open at Wolfram Gottschalk’s care home and he sees his wife of 62 years, the couple’s granddaughter says he always reacts the same way.
The 83-year-old, who has been living apart from his beloved Anita for eight months, cries out her nickname — “My little mouse!” in German — and the two sit together and weep for several minutes.
“He always pretends that he has something in his eye, because he’s not a crier,” said Ashley Bartyik, their granddaughter, with a soft laugh.
“He doesn’t want us to see him vulnerable, but then he can’t control it and the outbursts start. And my grandma starts crying then.”
Bartyik captured this moment earlier this week in a heartbreaking photograph that has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and made headlines around the globe.
She said the couple spent no more than a few days apart during their decades of marriage, but for the past eight months Wolfram has lived alone in the Yale Road Centre in Surrey, B.C.
He suffers from dementia and had to move to the transitional facility in January after experiencing congestive heart failure. Anita, 81, quickly got on a wait list to get into a residential-care home so that the pair could live together.
Two months ago, she was placed in an assisted-living unit in the Residence at Morgan Heights, about a half-hour drive away from Yale Road Centre. Wolfram has been on a wait list to get into a complex-care unit in the centre ever since.
On Tuesday — hours before Bartyik posted the photo on Facebook with the caption, “This is the saddest photo I have ever taken” — Wolfram was diagnosed with lymphoma. The family is waiting to find out which stage the cancer is in, but Bartyik fears time is running out.
“My fear is that he passes away before he’s reunited with my grandmother, or one of them dies of a broken heart,” she said. “I think that’s a real possibility.”
Bartyik said she hopes her photo draws attention to what she sees as a shortage of publicly funded care beds for seniors in the province.
Fraser Health spokeswoman Tasleem Juma said there have been no vacancies at Morgan Heights since Anita moved there in July, but the health authority hopes to have the situation resolved in a few weeks.
“It’s not unusual for senior couples to need different levels of care at different times,” she said in an email. “We are committed to reuniting families who are in our care. The challenge in this case is that the husband’s care needs are considerably higher than his wife’s.”
Fraser Health opened 403 new beds in the spring, regularly reviews where the need is and makes investment decisions accordingly, Juma said, adding that the health authority has a number of facilities that can provide both care levels. Wolfram needs residential care while Anita needs assisted living.
B.C. seniors’ advocate Isobel Mackenzie said 25 per cent of assisted-living units in the province have someone waiting for them, while less than 10 per cent of residential-care units have people waiting.
Most elderly people in care in B.C. are no longer married, but the number of people in the same situation as the Gottschalks could be in the hundreds, she said.
She said their case speaks to the rigidity of the rules and the process. Creative solutions could be explored, such as allowing Wolfram to move into assisted living with Anita or squeezing another bed into his transitional facility for her, she said.
“We’re going to have to become a little more comfortable with allowing couples like the Gottschalks to make choices about how they want to spend their remaining years, months sometimes.
“At the end of the day, no matter what we do, Mr. and Mrs. Gottschalk are going to die, as are we all. So, what’s really im