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On Video: a woman with nothing to live for

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"I don't know that there's anything outstanding, really, to tell you about," says Cary Stauffacher's grandmother Ruth Corrine Hammer, sitting in her backyard in Monroe, Wisconsin. "I've reached the age of 85 and I'm still doing my own housework and I try to keep my house in perfect order all the time. That's the only thing worth mentioning."

Ruth, whose husband Walter died ten years ago, is in a lawn chair with her back to her granddaughter's camera. An empty white chair faces her. "Cut it off here if you want," she suggests. This poignantly framed moment appears in Every Ninety Days, a video portrait of her grandmother that Stauffacher made in 1988. A few years later she expanded this sketch into Something Should Be Done About Grandma Ruthie, an account of her grandmother's wrenching path to a nursing home as Alzheimer's eroded her independence.

Stauffacher originally planned to make an instructional tape for families of Alzheimer's sufferers, but instead she ended up shaping her 60 hours of material around Grandma Ruthie's fear of losing her house. For Ruthie's children, who live in Virginia and Ohio, trying to move their mother into a nursing home proved quite a chore. This unsettling diary of a family's struggle is both a bittersweet saga and a sociological case study.

As Stauffacher's mother, Joan Hammer Stauffacher, tells it, Ruthie was more than her worried neighbors and hired caretakers could handle. "She had Vera wound up pretty tight," Joan tells her daughter, referring to one woman who helped out. "And just how tight, unfortunately, was proven when Vera decided to kill herself." Joan later comments: "We should have stopped right then and there. We're over our heads. We need a professional."

A physician prescribed a tranquilizer, which was slipped into Ruthie's meals. "Drugging her every day," as Joan puts it. But even in Ruthie's frail state of 90 pounds, the drug seemed to have no effect on her stubbornness. When Joan told the doctor about struggling to get her mother into the car for a drive to the hospital, "He said two things: 'Shit!' and 'Double the dosage.'"

Ruthie didn't make it easy for anybody to take care of her. "She would hide her teeth and her glasses so she couldn't eat and couldn't see," recalls Stauffacher. "Every day we would have to search for them. She hid them in the damnedest places."

They tried putting Ruthie in a facility, but by the second night she was expelled for hollering to a ward of tearful old ladies, shivering in their nighties, that doctors were coming to get them with straitjackets.

She finally ended up at another place. "They seemed kind," says Joan. "They seemed honest. They all said they didn't want their parents in a nursing home. . . . Even though she had to be drugged, at least it sounded like a place where she was getting good care. And it didn't smell bad." Joan takes her mother's Alzheimer's hard, saying it's "a dirty trick--a dirty trick on the children and the grandchildren."

"I wish I would drop dead--that's all I wish--and put everybody at ease," Ruthie says. She's still alive, although everybody in the hour-long tape refers to her in the past tense.

Stauffacher says elderly members of her immediate family have typically died early or abruptly. "We'd say, 'That's the chair uncle so-and-so died in.'" Ruthie almost seemed upset by her longevity. "It was like an aberration of nature for her. Nobody was supposed to live that long."

The tape ends with a Christmas visit in 1990. Ruth sits alone on a nursing home sofa as her daughter plays "Silent Night" on an electric organ. "Sleep in heavenly peace," Ruthie solos. Something Should Be Done About Grandma Ruthie plays at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, Saturday at 8 PM. Admission is $5. Call 384-5533.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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