Virginia Kelly column: Living with Alzheimer's

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 23, 2006

By Virginia Kelly

For the Salisbury Post

That time of year has rolled around again. No, I am not referring to Christmas or New Year’s. I am referring to our wedding anniversary.

Sixty years ago, Dec. 7, 1946, I married my sweetheart.

He had served three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was discharged in March, 1946, and we married nine months later.

Here it is 60 years later, and he has Alzheimer’s. Living with this horrible disease is difficult for the entire family. Until some time in the ’90s he was full of life, active, loving, kind, funny, smart — then things started changing.

The first change I noticed was his memory. Next was anger. When the anger got much worse, I took him to our family doctor, who prescribed medicine and suggested that he go to a neurologist. I took him, and more medication was prescribed.

He did not seem to improve, so I took him to the VA Medical Center in Salisbury. I think it was 1997. His primary care has been by the VA since then. The VA Home-based Primary Care team comes to our home, so we don’t have to go to the hospital unless there is an emergency.

My long-time sweetheart is now a totally different person — most of the time. Sometimes he knows that I am his wife and sometimes he thinks I’m his girlfriend. He has not forgotten my given name. When I ask him who I am he smiles and says, “Virginia Dare.”

For a period of time, he had horrible angry episodes, and I was afraid of him. After the doctor made some changes in his medication, angry episodes have not been a problem. With this disease, behavior changes occur periodically, so they may return.

My dear husband wants to “go home” lots of times, even when we are already home. I then explain to him that his dad helped him build our house after our first house burned in 1953. He does not believe me and says that he never lived in this house.

Most days are the same for him. He sleeps until after 9 a.m. most of the time. I usually have to get him up. After he has breakfast I help him with a shower, unless he refuses.

Sometimes I shave him. He cannot shave himself, although he was a barber for many years. I help him get dressed after the shower.

After he is dressed he sits down on a sofa or recliner and is there most of the day, with his head back, eyes shut. I never know if he is asleep or awake unless I ask him.

It amazes me that he says the blessing at every meal. Sometimes I have to ask him if he is going to, and sometimes he has trouble saying some words, although he never forgets to end, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

He still attends church services and sings with the congregation when he knows the song. He cannot see well enough to read the words.

Before Alzheimer’s he enjoyed reading the Bible, newspaper or magazines. He can no longer do that.

During the night he gets up and walks to the bathroom, two rooms away, instead of using the bedside commode. Sometimes I am asleep when this happens, so I can’t tell him where it is. I know he has been in there because he leaves the bathroom light on. When he needs to use the bathroom during the day, however, he asks where it is and I have to

show him the way. I do not understand this.

Three of our five children live within sight of our house; and they are a blessing to us. They take turns mowing our yard and do other yard work. They come when we need them, even in the middle of the night. When they go shopping they pick up things we need, sometimes not letting us pay for it. They check on us often, just to see how we are and if we need anything.

A daughter and granddaughter came recently and decorated our house, inside and out, for Christmas. A son filled our fuel oil tank recently, for free. When we need transportation because I am not feeling up to driving, we can count on one of the children, in-laws or grandchildren.

One daughter lives in Boone but came down several times to help, when possible. Recently she had cancer surgery, followed by radiation. She is now on medication that she will be on for five years. She and her husband have been here once since her surgery. They came to church one Sunday, then took us to lunch and visited with us the rest of the day.

Another daughter lives in Statesville. She comes down to help when she can. She sometimes gives her dad a pedicure. He loves to have a pedicure and grins like a possum when she gives him one.

I am thankful that I have been married to this man for 60 years, and love him with all my heart. I am also thankful for the help of God, family and friends.