Touched by Alzheimer’s: Letting go with grace

By Devin Heilman, originally published in the Coeur d’Alene PressThis is the second in a three-part series that explores the lives of families touched by Alzheimer’s. This incurable and frightening “silent epidemic” affects many people in our community, from the patients losing themselves to the loved ones who watch them slowly disappear.

Tess Freeman/Press: Betsy Sears watches her husband Ron Sears fiddle with a box of dominoes at Rose Terrace Cottage on a Wednesday morning. Ron was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2008 and moved into Rose Terrace Cottages in Dec. 2014 to receive full-time care. Betsy visits Ron everyday. “No matter what happens to his mind I know that his spirit is still there,” Betsy said.

Tess Freeman/Press: Betsy Sears watches her husband Ron Sears fiddle with a box of dominoes at Rose Terrace Cottage on a Wednesday morning. Ron was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2008 and moved into Rose Terrace Cottages in Dec. 2014 to receive full-time care. Betsy visits Ron everyday. “No matter what happens to his mind I know that his spirit is still there,” Betsy said.

People who meet Betsy Sears may not immediately realize the tower of strength within her.

Pleasantly sweet and soft-spoken, Betsy’s world has been turned upside-down by Alzheimer’s. She recently made the extremely difficult to admit her husband, Ron, 68, into a full-time care facility where he is under constant supervision. Ron’s dementia with Lewy bodies (abnormal masses of protein in the nerve cells) has become too much for her to manage.

It’s now just her and the cat in their quiet Coeur d’Alene home, and the peace with which she is blessed.

“I have such a nice life, and his is so constricted, and that’s sad to see,” said Betsy, 67. “There was a scripture that I had never been aware of … about the Lord being in ‘places,’ plural, so He could be with me and He could be with Ron at the same time. That just really answered that need. It’s just one after another. If there’s a need, the Lord has an answer.”

Ron never really received an absolute diagnosis, but all signs point to Alzheimer’s with Lewy bodies – rigid muscles, a shuffling walk and other movement symptoms. He was in is 50s when he started complaining about his memory, Betsy said, even though she didn’t notice anything. It wasn’t until Ron returned from a family trip that Betsy talked to one of his sisters, who was positive he had the disease because their mother had suffered from it.

“I’d test him, particularly right after a sermon,” Betsy said. “It was just right after we’d gotten out of church, you know, ‘Who was it that the sermon was about?’ and he couldn’t remember, so I thought, ‘Well maybe there really is a problem.'”

Ron, who was a painter by trade, stopped working in the fall of 2007. His inability to follow directions was frustrating his boss and he had a terrifyingly close call where he almost fell because his reflexes failed him.

“He was up high on a ladder and reached for the wrong thing, but was fortunately fast enough to reach for the right thing and keep from cracking his skull open,” Betsy said.

In January of 2008, Betsy accompanied Ron to a memory clinic. He was showing symptoms of depression and exhibiting signs of early-onset Alzheimers, which affects people in their 40s and 50s.

“A couple times he’d stand there and say, ‘What’s wrong with me?'” Betsy said. “And I’d tell him, ‘The neurons in your head are getting disconnected.’ He just seemed to accept it.”

Betsy said the tests and MRI the doctors conducted made it clear that he had a problem and they recommended she apply for disability.

But somehow, Ron didn’t lose his sense of humor.

“Ron says, ‘So I must have failed with flying colors,'” she said with a slight grin. “You never saw anybody take it so well. He would just say, ‘Well, I’m demented,’ you know, like it was his excuse if he couldn’t remember something.”

Ron’s condition progressively got worse and he lingered in the middle stage of Alzheimer’s for several years. He became restless; he would get out of bed because he didn’t know his wife of 42 years, he kept turning off the wall heater without knowing how to ignite the pilot light and he thought their son was an intruder. He’s now nearing the end of the middle stage and entering the late stage.

“He’s gone downhill, but he walks all the time,” Betsy said. “It’s not often that he sits and relaxes. I think he sleeps OK. And he hardly says anything intelligible. Last week, he said, ‘It’ll be OK.’ And at one point, a few days before that, I asked if he knew Jesus loved him, and he said, ‘Of course I do.”

Betsy kept him home as long as she possibly could, but as his condition worsened she knew she could no longer care for him and maintain her own sanity. And she said she didn’t want to resent him.

“It became more and more clear that I couldn’t leave him alone for more than two or three hours, and it got to where I couldn’t leave him alone for even that long,” she said, explaining that professional in-home care was something they just couldn’t afford.

Ron has been a resident at Rose Terrace Cottages since mid-December. It’s a homey assisted living and residential care facility where he lives with other men in similar conditions. Betsy said she knows he’s safe there, and he has a friend on whose shoulder he rests his hand as they shuffle around together. Betsy’s really happy about that.

“When I made that decision, I was second-guessing myself, and then I remembered a scripture that said, ‘The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord,'” Betsy said. “I thought, OK, this isn’t me doing this, this is the Lord, this is his time.”

Betsy sees Ron as much as possible, but she will continue to live her life and do things she couldn’t when he was home. She spends time with her siblings, with whom she is very close, and she has a very strong faith.

“I don’t know how anybody goes through this without the Lord,” she said. “It’s too lonely. You see somebody that you love going.”

Years ago, she said she observed how others around her were suffering and questioned why God was so good to her.

“I felt like the Lord told me, ‘I can bless you if I want to,'” she said. “When this happened, it really was the way I felt, ‘Oh good, the Lord loves me, he’s given me a problem.’ Why are we even living if we don’t have a challenge of some kind?”

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