British Columbia

White Rock man sings every day to wife with Alzheimer's, savours time 'before she's gone'

White Rock resident Shirley Fryer has been living with Alzheimer's disease for 14 years. She doesn't recognize her children — but she doesn't forget her husband.

Shirley Fryer can't recognize her children — but she still hasn't forgotten her husband

Shirley and Stan Fryer are featured in a new documentary highlighting Alzheimer's disease and the role of the caregiver. (Vimeo/Arun Fryer)

White Rock, B.C.'s Stan Fryer tells his wife Shirley that he loves her at least 20 times a day, because she forgets.

There's not much she can remember as a result of her ongoing two-decade battle with Alzheimer's disease. She doesn't recognize her children, and she can't write her own name.

But she hasn't forgotten her husband.

"She still recognizes me," said Stan Fryer. "After 17 years with Alzheimer's, she's doing incredibly well."

The husband and wife are now the subject of a new documentary titled Before She's Gone. It follows Fryer as he comes to terms with his wife's illness, and shares his own philosophy on love, patience, and caregiving, including the one trick that he believes has kept him in her mind and heart.

"I sing to her."

Before she's gone

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a degenerative brain disease that slowly limits one's ability to think, remember and perform daily physical functions.

There's an estimated 564,000 Canadians living with dementia and diagnoses are expected to increase by 66 per cent over the next 15 years. Each case is unique, but symptoms tend to worsen significantly over time.

"It is hard," said Fryer, "because what you're viewing is your spouse dying right before your eyes."

There's no cure for Alzheimer's, a disease that forces many families to watch their loved ones deteriorate. But that hasn't stopped Fryer from visiting his wife every night at her care home, where amidst the dozens of hugs, kisses, and 'I love you's', he sings the affectionate lyrics of Anne Murray.

Stan Fryer sings to his wife every day in her care home. (Arun Fryer)

"I sing, 'can I have this dance for the rest of my life, would you be my partner every night, when we're together it feels so right, can I have this dance for the rest of my life.'"

Each night, Fryer follows through on one promise he made to his wife when she was first diagnosed.

"She wanted to make sure that I kept loving her. She would always ask."

Stan and Shirley Fryer were married for over 60 years. (Vimeo/Arun Fryer)

A documentary short

Stan and Shirley Fryer's relationship and family history is on full display in Before She's Gone. The film was made by the couple's grandson and filmmaker Arun Fryer.

"It's an important story to show. We never wanted to make a sad or depressing thing about Alzheimer's," he said.

Arun was unsure of what angle he wanted to show by documenting his grandparents. He decided to grab a camera and shoot his grandparents being honoured by the Alzheimer Society and the Annual Walk for Memory. When he watched the footage, he realised he wasn't recording a documentary about an incurable disease. He was filming a love story.

Arun Fryer, filmmaker and grandson of Shirley and Stan Fryer, is the director of Before She's Gone. (Vimeo/Arun Fryer)

"I'll admit, we've cried a few times in the editing room," he said. "Emotionally its been challenging, but piecing it together has actually been a real joy."

He stumbled across hours of old family tapes and reels that he and his parents had never seen before. He digitized them, and incoporated them into the film.

With the short film now completed after receiving funding from both the National Film Board and an Indiegogo campaign, he hopes that viewers will come away with a greater understanding of the disease, and how important the role of caregiver is.

"One of my favourite lines in the film is, my grandpa says 'I'm not a patient person. In fact, I'm rather impatient. But because I love her, I have patience for her.'

"I'm hoping people remember that it often comes down to the simple basics of love and patience."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition