I met my husband Steven in an organic chemistry class in college. There were handouts coming down the aisle, and Steven, who was sitting to my left, received the last one for our row of seats. Before I could do anything, he quickly jumped over the rows to the front of classroom to grab a handout for me, a knight in shining armor! We have been together for 41 years.
Today, Steven is my care partner. Marriage isn’t an easy business – there are lots of ups and downs and the need to adjust to the many changes that come over so many years. My being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016 at the age of 65 was one of those changes. Although I am sure I ask Steven the same question over and over again, he never shows any frustration. I am so thankful to have him next to me. In fact, sometimes I feel like one of the luckiest people alive.
I understand the denial many people go through when receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia, especially if they are still part of the workforce. Not only was I diagnosed after retirement – a slight silver lining – but my mom had an Alzheimer’s diagnosis as well, at the exact same age as I did. Knowing my family history with the disease, my formal diagnosis brought both sadness and relief. I knew what was ahead and yet that also meant I could take steps to prepare myself for a different life, and I am grateful for that insight.
Unlike my mother, I never had the desire to hide my disease from anyone. Yes, people react differently to the news. Some can’t handle it, and treat you differently, while others – as I’d like and want it to be – treat me the same. You can’t ignore the disease and you can’t predict how someone is going to react to the news. You can only tell them and move on and live the best life you can.
When it comes to Alzheimer’s, it often takes a village.
I personally went through fear, depression, acceptance…all the standard emotions that come with this kind of diagnosis. I saw several social workers, which was enlightening because the people I spoke with knew exactly how to help me through my experience. I would encourage anyone with dementia of Alzheimer’s to seek out this kind of support. It can be as valuable as the support one can receive from a caregiver or care partner.
I also have found support throughout my community. From my experience participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s to the fantastic people from the Indianapolis chapter of Alzheimer’s Association, I am so thankful. I am in a walking club where I make positive one-on-one connections and I’m an active churchgoer, surrounded by people who care for me and who care about me. I come away from my encounters with this variety of dedicated people so uplifted – and more extroverted!
There is another caregiver in my life…
He is a “teenage” Labrador-Australian Shepherd mix and such a joy! To call my new pup, Jackson, energetic would be an understatement. Two times a day, I take him for a walk that releases his boundless energy and helps calm me down. He doesn’t know that I have Alzheimer’s, and he doesn’t care that I do. He doesn’t change his demeanor around me and he doesn’t judge. He just loves me for who I am.
Care and love can come from so many places: my husband, my son, my friends, my extended family and my rescue dog, who in many ways rescues me. To be supported on this journey is so important, and I honor each and every person who has been a part of my journey. It’s not over yet.
About the Author: Mary received her Master of Science from the University of Illinois in reproductive physiology, and spent her career as a biologist, most notably working at the Indianapolis Zoo, studying the artificial insemination of African elephants. In addition to her work in the science field, Mary volunteered as a docent at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and was the editor of the Expatriate Magazine for American women’s Club in Belgium, where she lived for two years with her husband, Steven, and her son, who lives in New York City with his wife.