Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III reaches over and takes his wife’s hand. She looks at him and smiles.
“I love you, Booby,” he says.
“I love you, too,” Christa Beverly Baker responds.
It’s Sunday afternoon and the Bakers are enjoying a quiet moment in the comfortable living room of their Cheverly home. Their youngest daughter, Quinci, is off somewhere in the house. Their dog, Snoopy, trots around. Classical music is playing and the sun shines brightly through valanced windows.
It looks like any happy family scene.
Until you look closer.
Beverly’s gaze seems blank, albeit happy, as she looks at her husband. She recognizes and acknowledges a guest with smiles and hugs, but seems distracted. She chats, but doesn’t seem to follow the conversation. She happily shows off a favorite silver bracelet and a photo of her mother.
“Even now, there is not a moment that I don’t feel blessed,” Baker told the AFRO later that afternoon. “There’s not a day when I can’t wait to get home to my wife, even with everything that has happened.”
What has happened is early onset dementia, which Beverly was diagnosed with two years ago. Once a civil rights lawyer known for her sharp intellect and equally sharp tongue, these days Beverly spends most of her days at home and requires almost constant care, unable to work, drive, cook and even recognize her oldest child.
Baker, two years into his first term overseeing the jurisdiction known for its affluent and well-educated Black middle class, has joined the ranks of the nation’s caregivers. He spends his days serving almost 900,000 residents, then goes home to care for his wife and attend to his children. He dashes home during the day to check on her whenever he can. He tries to spend as many Fridays as possible working from home. He has reduced the number of out-of-town and weekend obligations. He recently spent weeks searching for a caregiver for Beverly.
“I tell you, when you find somebody good, you are willing to pay them anything,” he said over a salad at a restaurant near his home. He ordered salmon to take home. These days, it is difficult to get her to eat anything except that and crab cakes, he said.
Watching what has happened to his beloved “Cis,” has taken its toll. He’s lost weight. Still boyish at 53, he still smiles easily, but sadness creeps in more often now.
He said he’s sad for his children and the people who will never know her when she was herself. He holds onto the memories—their fabulous Richmond wedding in 1986, where guests were ferried around in antique cars and she looked at him with so much love that he was sure that if she could, she’d shrink him and put him in her pocket so that could always be together; the joy they felt with the birth of each of their children; her guidance and support as he embarked on a career in politics, despite her disdain for politicians.
He feels fortunate that, unlike many caring for loved ones, he has both the financial means and support from friends and family to offer her quality care and help his children as they move into adulthood.
He thanks God that much of the time she seems happy. She wakes him every morning with a kiss on the forehead and greets him cheerfully when he returns home. She recognizes people and still shows love, though crowds and noise bother her. She has trouble sleeping.
“It’s is frightening how fast it has advanced,” he said of the dementia.
According to statistics from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, there are more than 5 million people in the United States living with some form of dementia. African American women are more than twice as likely as White women to suffer from it, according to experts.
Beverly was a lobbyist and education policy adviser when she lost her job in 2007 and lapsed into what Baker thought was mild depression. Over the next year, it became apparent that something was wrong, loved ones said.
“There were little things happening like she would misplace her keys, which was different because she was 100 percent organized,” Baker said. “She kept saying she was starting to lose stuff.”
Then, one day late in 2008, she drove down to Richmond to visit her parents. Baker got a call from their oldest daughter, Aja, now 20.
“‘Mommy’s lost,’” Aja told him. “She’s in Richmond and she can’t find her house.’”
They started going to doctors, but tests always turned out negative, including a painful spinal tap. A neurologist at one point suggested that they purchase a GPS to keep her from getting lost.
Beverly, without voicing it to loved ones, apparently grew concerned on her own. She ordered memory boosting games and began playing them with Quinci, who was still in high school. She made donations to the Alzheimer’s Foundation. She wrote letters to her daughters Aja, and Quinci, now 17, identifying pieces of jewelry and china she wanted them to have. The couple also have a son, Rushern IV, who is 24.
She seemed happy, although she increasingly exhibited odd behavior, Baker said.
“She was sure we had bedbugs and she began cleaning obsessively,” Baker said. “She kept saying, ‘There are bedbugs biting me.’ We would have just fumigated the house, but it became a daily thing. It went on for six or seven months.”
As Beverly’s condition worsened, Baker began to rethink plans to run for county executive. He had lost twice and was concerned about what a rigorous campaign might do to his wife.
Just before Valentine’s Day 2010 six months before the Democratic primary, they visited another neurologist, who, after more tests, diagnosed early onset dementia.
“All the agility things she could do, but she couldn’t remember how old the kids were or their birthdays,” Baker said.
Doctors told him that the campaign would give her something to focus on. There is nothing he could do for her that should preclude him from running, they said.
As he campaigned, Quinci took on a lot of the caregiver duties and as the dementia has progressed, she continues to care for her mother. They played games and painted birdhouses together. Quinci, Aja and Beverly played dress up. Rushern IV came home to help with the campaign. For her 50th birthday, the family went to Paris.
Beverly was among the people who Baker depended on during the campaign. He thanks her for pushing him to run.
“That was a wonderful night and she was right there by me,” said Baker, who said he plans to run for reelection in 2014. “When I thought about not running, she wouldn’t have it. She told me I could resign the day after I was sworn in, but she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life hearing me lament about not running.”
He credits her for his career and the success of his family.
“When I think about the things I have to do now, I don’t have a problem because they are so small compared to what she did for me and our family,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am, our children wouldn’t be as wonderful as they are and our lives wouldn’t be as happy without Cis. Now, its her turn.”