Calling Steve Bigham's story "tragic" doesn't even approach the reality of his situation.
The Coatesville resident has sacrificed everything to stay home and take care of his wife, Judy. His car, his life savings, his hobbies, his health and even, at times, his happiness. Wednesday the Bighams' home went up for Sheriff's Sale after the bank foreclosed on it.
Judy is in the late stages of Alzheimer's Disease and she can't even remember her husband's name.
But what makes all of this worse is that this was preventable.
Medicaid and other government programs offer resources, support and money that almost certainly would have kept the Bighams out of financial ruin.
In fact, the state has been working increasingly to keep people with chronic diseases out of nursing homes and help family members care for them, experts say.
A long history together
Steve and Judy were high school sweethearts, married at 19.
Steve will fondly show anyone who asks his photographs of their wedding day -- July 8, 1966.
Now 60, they both look a bit different. Steve's tall and thin frame and clean-cut features have been replaced with a jolly, round belly, a long beard and wispy, disappearing white hair -- a picture of Santa Claus in the off-season.
Judy has changed, too. Gone are her inquisitive, sparkling eyes and glowing smile. Instead she wears a dim, vacant stare, scarcely a shadow of the woman she used to be.
Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer's six years ago.
Alzheimer's is a heart-breaking disease that attacks the day-to-day functions of the brain, slowly robbing those afflicted of their memories, their independence and eventually their ability to care for themselves at all.
The Alzheimer's Association estimates that about 5.1 million Americans, mostly the elderly, are living with the disease.
However, more than half a million of those people, like Judy, begin to see symptoms before they turn 65.
In 2000, some 100,000 Hoosiers were living with Alzheimer's. That number is projected to increase 20 percent by 2010, according to an annual report published by the Alzheimer's Association.
Steve and Judy both worked hard their entire lives. She was a bookkeeper and office manager at Hines Bindery.
He was a Teamster, making good money at Irving Materials, Inc. When their two children were grown, they moved to Heritage Lake from Indianapolis, hoping to finish out their careers in a modest home with a big enough yard for a small garden and Steve's archery range.
The Bighams paid $95,000 for the house at 129 Lincoln Hills in May 2000. But, between attorney's fees and intereste tacked on, the mortgage on the house totaled more than $120,000.
When Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at 54, Steve had to learn to run the house. Judy had handled everything -- the finances, the laundry, the chores.
As the disease progressed and Judy began to need round-the-clock care, Steve looked around for someone who could look after his wife while he was at work.
But when he couldn't afford the $800 per week for a nurse to stay with her, he only had one option in his mind: he retired to take care of his wife full time.
The couple had a "significant savings," Judy received full disability and Steve had a meager pension. He thought he could make it work.
But the couple's expenses quickly ate up the Bigham's money and Steve soon learned that their fixed income would not be enough to live on and pay the mortgage.
He sought help, but was told that because they were both younger than 65 and he was previously gainfully employed, he wasn't eligible for aid.
So Steve sold his car and borrowed against some of the equity in his house in an attempt to keep ahead of the first mortgage.
When he first realized he might not be able to make loan payments, he refinanced the home.
At the advice of a mortgage broker, he took out an high rate interest-only loan in Judy's name.
As the Bigham's financial situation spiraled, Steve said he received a call one day from a man who said he was from a social services agency.
Steve doesn't remember his position or the entity he was with, only his message. The man told Steve that if he put Judy in a nursing home, he could keep his house and salvage the remainder of his savings and credit. The prospect of this infuriated Steve.
"I would feel like I was deserting her," he said. "When I married her, I promised I would take care of her, and that's what I'm going to do until I die."
"You really need a guide"
Unfortunately, like so many other people in his position, Steve received a lot of bad advice, said Indianapolis elder law attorney Claire Lewis. And it cost him.
In recent years, the state and federal governments have been making a push to keep the chronically ill in their homes, under the care of friend and family members.
This keeps them out of nursing homes and drives down the state's cost of caring for them.
This move also caters to a large segment of the population that wants to keep sick loved ones at home. Some 70 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease are cared for in the home at least in part by family and friends, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Medicaid can help pay for home care, as much as 35 to 40 hour per week, she said.
And the federal program pays aid to families and spouses of Alzheimer's patients regardless of income and age.
This is a recent development in Medicaid law that many people don't know about, Lewis said.
Steve could have also protected his assets and likely kept his house without refinancing and losing the equity in it, she added.
"The sad thing is that the system is not user friendly," Lewis said. "There is a vast array of information and you really kind of need a guide."
Amy Frepan, who consults with families for the Indianapolis branch of the Alzheimer's Association, said when a loved one is diagnosed with the disease, it's important to plan ahead. That usually requires the help of an elder law attorney or other professional who knows the system and the resources it offers, she said.
Caring for the caregivers
Caregivers also have to be mindful of their own health, Frepan said. Looking after family members with any chronic disease can take a heavy toll, she said.
Alzheimer's is particularly difficult for loved ones to deal with because they have to watch as its victims gradually lose all memories and ability to take care of themselves.
And, though medication can slow the process, there is no stopping the disease.
Steve knows this first hand. When Judy was asked whether she remembers the name of her husband during an interview at the couple's kitchen table last week, she stared blankly at Steve, the man she has been living with for 41 years, and then looked nervously away.
"I don't know," she finally said after a silence that seemed interminable.
Steve has come to accept his wife's steady and inevitable decline, but it has been difficult for him.
Like many family members who care for sick loved ones, he has been treated for depression many times since Judy was diagnosed.
Mental illness and high stress and anxiety levels are common among family and loved ones of Alzheimer's patients due to the degenerative nature of the disease, Frepan said.
In addition to losing his savings and money, Steve also had to give up his hobbies. An avid hunter and fisherman, the walls of the Bigham's home proudly display several sets of trophy antlers and photographs of Steve's fishing trips.
Since he's been caring for Judy, Steve has sold or given away his guns and hasn't been fishing in at least a year.
Frepan said caregivers need to make time for themselves and get out of the house on a regular basis. Otherwise the consequences can be dire.
Nearly 70 percent of caregivers die before their loved one being cared for, she said. The Putnam County Hospital offers a support group that can help family members of people with Alzheimer's.
It meets at 4 p.m. the second Thursday of every month in the first floor classroom in the hospital.
The Bigham's home, which carried more than $120,000 in debt, despite its appraisal value of just more than $100,000, sold Wednesday at Sheriff's Sale for $88,000.
The mortgage company bought it back. Steve said 10 years ago, he never thought he'd be in a position to lose his house.
Fortunately, Steve and Judy's grown son was able to buy a small house for them in Jamestown, Ind. The couple was in the process of moving late last week.
Still, he knows that for all it's cost him, he would leave his job and do it all over again.
"I'm still sure I made the right decision," he said. "I don't have anything else to live for but her."