Love, Alzheimer’s and Four Physicians

I am compelled to tell the stories of four physicians who dealt with Alzheimer’s Disease within their families in ways that deeply touched me. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Joseph was my parents’ personal physician early in his career. He later left our small town for a prestigious clinic, became a surgeon, and established a large surgery center. At the height of his thriving practice, his wife developed Alzheimer’s Disease. While he could have easily rationalized placing her in a nursing home and marching on with his business and career, he chose to stop and care for her at their home for the last 10 years of her life. When I caught up with him later in his retirement, he gave me the impression that caring for his wife was what he was meant to do. There were no regrets, no second thoughts.

William was in a thriving family practice when his mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He took two years off to care for his mother-in-law at home, then returned to his practice when his wife retired and was available to care for her mother. I told him, “You have singlehandedly destroyed the power of every mother-in-law joke ever told!” He replied, “I love her and enjoyed my time with her.”

Then there is Jeff, a close friend of mine. We worked together at a VA hospital where he was a surgeon. As he worked into his 70s, he migrated to the geriatric ward where he was a beloved physician to the aging veterans. After his retirement, he and his wife Grace settled into a comfortable home with the city at their front door and the forest at their back door. They travelled, attended the theatre, and spent time with their eight children. Over the years, as Grace began experiencing dementia, Jeff seemed to just take it in stride. It did not stop him from escorting her to plays, baseball games, concerts, and out to dinner. It did not deter him when others advised them, in their 80s, to move to an assisted living facility. It did not occur to him to do anything but care for her at home.

Every summer Jeff, Grace, my wife, and I attended plays at a summer playhouse in a nearby state park. As Grace struggled to grasp the events and to recognize the people around her, Jeff proudly served as her guide, encourager, and memory bank. He patiently answered each question, often the same question numerous times. Sometimes after repeated questions from her, he channeled his frustration by saying, with the genuine passion of a young man talking to his bride, “I love you, Grace!” Then she would flash her gorgeous smile. On another occasion she excitedly announced, “I’m getting married!” Jeff seriously and emphatically let her know that after 68 years together, “Grace, you are married to me and it will stay that way!”

Grace passed away quietly at her home last week, with Jeff and their son Ron, the fourth physician (who, along with his partner Karen, cared for Grace whenever Jeff needed assistance or some alone time) at her side. When we later visited Jeff, he told us how thankful he was that Grace was able to stay in their home and that she had a painless and peaceful death. Then he smiled and added, without one ounce of arrogance, “She had a great husband.” I couldn’t agree more!