Mark’s basketball career has spanned the entirety of our 20-year marriage. We have moved a lot – experiencing an ever-changing landscape of varying cities, schools, friends and basketball seasons, with invariable ups and downs. My role in Mark’s career has always been to find stability in these times of change, drawing from my relationship with my family. Some changes, however, are harder to face than others.
Nearly nine years ago, my father died of younger-onset (early-onset) Alzheimer’s disease; he was 68 years old. Mark and I were living in Wichita, Kansas with our three young children – Will, 7; Ella, 4; and Leo, 1. I was devastated not only by my own loss, but the thought that my children would not grow up around my father.
Both Mark and I are extremely close with our families and derive much of our identities and strength of character from the foundations of our childhood, specifically from our parents. I grew up in a close family – the kind that sat round the dinner table together and did family chores together. My dad was a huge influence on me and my siblings. I had a lot in common with him; we shared a love of cooking and wine, and enjoyed exercising our creativity. I credit my work ethic, loyalty and family-first mentality to him.
Both my parents had always enjoyed sports, but it wasn’t until I fell in love with Mark that they fell in love with basketball. I was still in college when Mark and I began dating, so Mark met my dad when he was still himself, still the man who raised me, the ever-consummate business man. He and Mark forged their own relationship right away. There was a lot of mutual respect and admiration, a lot of overlapping drive for success despite odds and obstacles in both of their respective careers.
Mark still remembers my dad that way. I am so grateful that he calls upon those memories when sometimes I struggle to remember the man he was before Alzheimer’s. I think of his state during the final years when he and my mother lived in Wichita, when I took on a major role in his caretaking and decision-making. While difficult, mine and my father’s bond was solidified during this time.
When assisting my mother in his caretaking, my biggest challenge was not being able to help him when he was scared. Sometimes I would lose patience with him because you can’t “see” the effects of Alzheimer’s at first. He would look perfectly healthy and like his old self but wouldn’t be able to carry out a simple task like putting his coat on and getting in the car. I wanted to protect him and tell people he had Alzheimer’s because his behavior was so different from when he was healthy. He had always been this big, strong, brilliant, charismatic man and the disease took that away. My mom would always tell me that I had a way with him; he trusted and listened to me. I made him feel safe. That is by far the biggest reward – to give something back to the man who gave me everything.
Mark and I feel fortunate that, as the basketball coach for the University of Maryland, he can bring awareness and support to a disease set to escalate rapidly as the baby boom generation ages. We feel that we have been given this platform to help make a difference in the fight against Alzheimer’s. No one should have to watch their father or other loved ones suffer from this devastating disease.
About the Author: Ann Turgeon, wife of University of Maryland Basketball Coach Mark Turgeon, assisted her mother in caring for her father, who had younger-onset (early-onset) Alzheimer’s. She shares her story here to let other families know they are not alone—and in hopes of inspiring more people to take action in the fight against Alzheimer’s.