By Devin Heilman, originally published in the Couer d’Alene Press.
Editors note: Inspired by the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, Dennis and Jackie Wheeler have increased their match donation from $12,000 to $25,000. Any donations made to Washington and Northern Idaho Walk teams before October 31, will be doubled thanks to their generous support.
Life takes an unexpected turn when loved ones — husbands, wives, partners in life — become victims of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Dennis Wheeler describes it as though they live their lives looking through four-pane windows: A couple panes are clear, just like nothing is wrong. The others are opaque, foggy with the illness that has clouded their minds.
“In one or two of those panes, there’s a real awareness, a humor, the relationships, like things used to be,” Wheeler said Thursday, pausing for a moment. “Then you just have that changing dynamic. They encounter new stuff and you have to reinforce yourself.”
Wheeler, 72, is relatively new to the role of caregiver. His wife of nearly 44 years, Jacqueline, 77, who he lovingly calls “Jackie,” was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about two years ago. Some days are better than others, but life will never be the same for him as he witnesses his best friend and sweetheart worsen and become disconnected from the life they built together.
“She’s not aware of it today,” he said. “She really hasn’t reflected to this day, and it’s probably because of the narrowing window that she confronts, that it’s really in our household.”
Alzheimer’s is enigmatic, tragic and incurable. It affects not only its victims, but their friends, their children, and, most of all, their spouses, who many times take on the role of caregiver. It’s a neurological disorder where memory loss and cognitive decline occur when brain cells die. It only gets worse.
While it seems as though nothing can be done to combat this terrible disease that turns people into strangers, Dennis has decided to fight.
He is challenging the people of Washington and North Idaho to donate to the Alzheimer’s Association. Until Oct. 31, the former president and CEO of Coeur d’Alene Mines is sending out a call to arms — he will match up to $25,000 in donations made to the Alzheimer’s Association, dollar for dollar.
Dennis said he was motivated to implement the challenge when he read the Sept. 27 Press article about the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. He is a private person who does not often put himself into the public eye, but he was so moved by the masses of people who attended the event that it struck a chord with him just how many people in the community are affected by the disease.
“I’d never been close to it and I thought it was just sensational,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by the number of people … I think it’s just fabulous the walkers turned out in the numbers they did.”
The North Idaho Walk to End Alzheimer’s raised $52,000 and people can continue to donate through Dec. 31. Dennis said it ought to be easy for the region to raise $100,000 for Alzheimer’s and he is hoping his contribution and the challenge will help reach that goal. He also said he hopes more people become aware of how significant of an issue Alzheimer’s is.
“When people really recognize the importance of this and the number of people in the community that are affected, I think they should step up,” he told The Press. “It’s one that’s going to grow and is growing and we will see more and more people in our community that all of a sudden, they exhibit Alzheimer’s, and we look at them as a completely different person, and all of a sudden, just ‘bang,’ here it is. It’s true what they say about it taking an emotional toll.
“As a caregiver, being able to recognize and accept that behavioral changes or emotional changes, anger, frustration, etc., are really just a result of the disease,” he continued, his eyes welling with tears. “(It’s important) to remind yourself that it’s just part of the disease and to be able to continue to work with that.
“As you can tell, it does impact me.”
P.J. Christo, RN, M.S., is the outreach coordinator for the Inland Northwest Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. She said a challenge of this scale has never been presented in this area in her 18 years with the association.
“This is huge,” she said. “What we’re hoping is that the challenge will spur on other people and other corporations here locally to move forward and realize the devastation of Alzheimer’s. And not only locally, but nationwide. We’re hoping they will move forward and donate and meet Dennis’ challenge.”
Funds that are donated to the Alzheimer’s Association help facilitate free programming and services for families struggling under the weight of dementia. The association is the world’s leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research with a mission to eradicate Alzheimer’s through the advancement of research while providing education, care and support to all affected and reducing the risk of dementia by promoting brain health.
Christo confirmed that the number of those affected by Alzheimer’s will only grow as time goes on.
“This disease is becoming more and more prevalent,” she said. “We’re all aging. It’s the Baby Boomer population, the ‘silver tsunami’ that is hitting us.”
Dennis said donating to the Alzheimer’s Association is very much worth it and he will continue to advocate for the cause long after Oct. 31.
“It’s a very sound investment for what the community’s receiving back and will receive back,” he said.