Every other day, Anita Gottschalk’s ritual continues.
Her family loads her into the car and then loads her walker, an aid the 81-year-old didn’t need until recently. Her loved ones blame the stress. They stop at Tim Hortons on the way, in search of her husband’s favorite treats — Boston cream doughnuts and mocha coffee — and when they complete their 40-minute drive to his nursing home, Anita hands them over lovingly.
But first she cries. He does, too.
And two hours later, when it’s time to say goodbye, to wheel away in opposite directions, the tears flow once again.
For seven months, their family in Surrey, British Columbia, has watched this ritual helplessly, unable to fix the health-care bureaucracy ripping the Gottschalks apart.
But when they got the diagnosis on Tuesday, that Wolfram Gottschalk’s body had been invaded by lymphoma, the couple’s 29-year-old granddaughter became desperate.
She found in her phone a photo she’d taken the day before, an emotional image of her grandparents reuniting. They sat face to face, wheels to wheels, wiping tears from their eyes.
“This is the saddest photo I have ever taken,” Ashley Bartyik typed. “This is my Omi and my Opi.”
Then she posted it to Facebook with an emoticon disclaimer: “feeling fed up.”
Her photo accompanied a long caption explaining her grandparents’ situation and calling on friends to spread their story. She hoped at least 100 of her 600 friends would repost it. Perhaps the power of Internet virality would get her grandparents some help.
“After 62 years together in marriage they have been separated for 8 months due to backlogs and delays by our health care system,” she wrote. “They cry every time they see each other, and it is heartbreaking.”
In January, Wolf, 83, was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, and in February he moved to a transitional nursing facility where he has been since. His dementia makes it hard for him to understand, so Bartyik and her family avoid the topic of home. They don’t tell him he’ll never go back.
“He would be devastated,” Bartyik told The Washington Post. “He would die of a broken heart.”
After a bout with pneumonia and a C. diff infection that landed him in quarantine, doctors told Anita she didn’t have the strength or resources to care for Wolf properly. He would need to find a long-term nursing home. She thought that would be best for her, too.
So two months ago, Anita moved into an assisted-living facility that also offered more intensive care for her husband. It required lots of paperwork and three official signatures, but finally they were promised reunification. They wouldn’t be able to share a room, but they could share a roof. At night, she’d be able to tuck him in.
But Wolf has yet to join her.
Bartyik blames the inefficiencies of Fraser Health Authority, one of the six publicly funded health-care entities that represents her region of British Columbia. There are too many aging seniors for too few publicly subsidized beds in local nursing homes, she told The Washington Post, and private care facilities are not an option for Canadian families like hers. There, costs can surge as high as $10,000 per month for complex care.
The facility where her grandfather has lived for seven months, Yale Road Centre, houses patients in transition. Most are on nursing home waiting lists that prioritize them behind candidates coming straight from home or the hospital, Bartyik said. Her grandfather’s multiple hospitalizations bumped him further down the list.
The average length of stay for patients there is four to 12 weeks, according to the facility’s website. Wolf has been there since February. Bartyik says their inquiries to get him moved have fallen on deaf ears.
Now, with Wolf’s cancer diagnosis and fading memory, time is running out.
His short-term memories are all but gone and he no longer recognizes friends. He still remembers most of his family, and his eyes light up at the sight of his great-grandchildren. He never forgets Anita.
“We are afraid, however, that if they are living apart much longer,” Bartyik wrote in her Facebook post, “his memory of her won’t stay.”
Their love over the decades — and unwavering commitment — has been the family’s “pillar of strength.”
Wolf and Anita married in Germany in 1954, after knowing each other just three months. They soon moved to Canada to look for work and along the way found a welcoming home. In a small town near Vancouver, the couple built a life and raised a family, organized events for the German multicultural society and earned a reputation for their admirable dancing.
They camped with their grandchildren and celebrated anniversaries as a family. Their 60th was a surprise party.
“We want justice for my grandparents who after 62 years together deserve to spend their last moments in the same building,” Bartyik wrote in her Facebook post, tagging Fraser Health Authority and pleading with friends to repost.
By Friday morning, the post had 4,450 shares. Hundreds of messages flooded Bartyik’s inbox, offering to donate money and help. Several New Yorkers even offered to put her grandparents up in a private home.
“We’ve denied all of those,” Bartyik said. “We just want this to be about the families that need the beds.
“It’s not going to help other families if we personally take money from other people,” she said.
The challenge with the Gottschalks, a spokeswoman from Fraser Health told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Wednesday, is that the options for nursing home placement are limited because Anita has already moved into a facility, the Residence at Morgan Heights, which currently has no open beds. Fraser Health asked the family to consider moving Anita and Wolf into a different home, a spokeswoman told the New York Daily News, but they wanted to keep them at Morgan Heights.
On Thursday, they got the affirmation they’d been waiting for.
After days of coverage from local, then national, and even international media, a woman from Fraser Health finally called, Bartyik said. She told the Gottschalk family that Wolf had been moved to the top of the list.
They said they’re working tirelessly but couldn’t offer a concrete timeline.
“This is a heartbreaking situation for the family, and it’s quite upsetting for us as well,” a spokeswoman for Fraser told CNN. “We are committed to reuniting the couple and we hope to do so within the next few weeks.”
Until then, they’ll continue their ritual. The doughnuts, the coffee, the German folk music they play on YouTube that helps bring back memories.
And they’ll keep dodging the question Wolf asks, in between tears, at the end of every visit.
“Can I come home with you?”