Jerry Davich: Older couples with Alzheimer’s together - a rising trend
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org March 18, 2013 10:30AM
Rodger and Elizabeth Talley are visited by their granddaughter Roshaunta Lewis (second from right) and their daughter Donita Lewis (far right) at the Talley's room in Rittenhouse Senior Living of Portage in Portage, Ind. Thursday March 14, 2013. The couple, who are both dealing with Alzheimer's, live together at the center. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
By the numbers
More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease.
A new person is diagnosed every 68 seconds.
One in eight older Americans has Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only cause of death among the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.
More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care valued at $210 billion for persons with Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
Payments for care are estimated to be $200 billion in the U.S. in 2012.
Source: Alzheimer’s Association
For more information
Call (800) 272-3900 or visit www.alz.org.
Updated: April 18, 2013 6:15AM
Rodger Talley sat quietly and contently in a chair, staring blankly through his wife of 68 years, Elizabeth, who napped on their bed.
He didn’t watch TV. He didn’t read. He didn’t interrupt his wife’s sleep. He just stared into the abyss of another day with a resigned calmness.
On the walls in their tiny yet cozy assisted living suite, two clocks ticked away the minutes in deafening silence. Both clocks had yet to be changed for Daylight Saving Time but this pointless detail simply didn’t matter to the Gary natives.
They both have dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, representing a rising demographic of older couples in this country who struggle together with its memory-erasing conditions. Elizabeth, 88, started showing signs first, about a dozen years ago, and then 92-year-old Rodger did, about five years ago.
She was a teacher for more than four decades in the Gary School system. He was a steel mill worker who worked hard to earn his keep. Both are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Is this my house?” Rodger asked his daughter, Andra Davis of Merrillville, about six years ago, as he looked at his own house.
She knew right then, sadly but smartly, that her father was suffering from dementia, too, just as her mother had been for years earlier. What are the odds, she thought.
Unfortunately, no agencies keep track of the number of people with Alzheimer’s or dementia who are married to someone who also has the disease, I’ve learned. Not the Alzheimer’s Association, the U.S. Census Bureau, or the National Institutes of Health.
However, one in seven people with Alzheimer’s live alone, which puts them at risk of falling, poor hygiene, untreated medical conditions, wandering from home, accidental death, and inadequate housing, among other dangers.
This wasn’t as serious of a concern for the Talleys because of their two wonderful daughters – Davis, of Merrillville, and Donita Lewis, of Matteson, Ill. – who took turns caring for their once independent but increasingly forgetful parents.
But it wasn’t easy through the years until the sisters finally found an assisted living facility with a memory care unit in Portage – one that Rodger believed was a hotel for months.
“They’ll do everything for you, Daddy. You just relax and enjoy it,” his daughters told him back in September when the couple moved into Rittenhouse Senior Living.
The top-notch facility is located just south of U.S. 6, behind Lowe’s, with 20 of its 24 memory care “suites” currently occupied. That number is sure to rise with a graying America and Alzheimer’s numbers predicted to skyrocket in years to come.
A decade ago, someone was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 72 seconds. By 2050, it is projected that someone will be diagnosed every 30 seconds. By the time you finish reading this column, roughly five more people will have been diagnosed, possibly someone you know.
‘Bud’ and ‘Liz’
While living in Merrillville, Elizabeth first started experiencing exhaustion and confusion while teaching at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Gary. A coworker mentioned it to Davis.
“I’m just so tired all the time,” Elizabeth later told her daughter.
Davis asked her father point blank: “Dad, do you think momma has Alzheimer’s?”
He quickly replied: “Yep.”
Rodger, who helped take care of his wife for several years, drove a car until he was 89. But the daily stress of caregiving caught up to him. One day he passed by his own home three times, neighbors noticed.
“I’ve been driving all day to get home,” he later told Davis.
His daughters soon took away his keys and his driver’s license, in a gentle way.
“We asked for them and then we distracted him,” Davis said. “He never said another word about it. I think he knew he shouldn’t be driving.”
The two sisters arranged for church members to help care for the older couple in their own home, but more help was later needed. They then hired home health workers to eventually visit the house every day, along with friends and family.
“By that point, my parents were never by themselves,” Davis explained. “But we were spending thousands of dollars on their in-home care.”
A friend recommended Rittenhouse Senior Living, so the family visited the facility last fall. Soon after, Rodger and Elizabeth moved in.
From their suite’s window, they see villas that remind them of their former neighborhood. Once in a while, they wrongly believe that a passing car is a former neighbor.
“Look, there goes Terry,” Rodger told his daughter, who politely agreed.
At this point of the couple’s dementia, their family has learned to simply appease them, not correct or counter them.
“My father can remember things more so than my mother,” said Davis, who visits her parents three times a week. “My mother talks nonsensical at times.”
Outside the couple’s suite is a “shadow box” with their nicknames, “Bud” and “Liz,” a common fixture in memory-care facilities to help them remember their new home. The couple is surrounded by old photos of themselves, their family, their three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. They help them remember not to forget. Sometimes.
Bud and Liz both appear happy here, though they may gently complain at times.
“My parents have always fussed with each other,” Davis joked. “It’s just how they are together. My mother can be a bit of a nag at times.”
Rodger has been conditioned to appease his wife of nearly seven decades. He does whatever it takes to keep her from being fussy.
When I asked Rodger how things were going, he replied matter-of-factly, “I’m just waiting for my wife to wake up. It’s the best thing to do.”
I plan to follow the Talleys and keep tabs on their situation. Stay tuned for future updates.