Fading away takes its toll on family

Published 12:41 am Thursday, September 8, 2011

Norman has been gone for more than 17 years, but his bright and articulate wife, Harriet, now in her 90s, has very rich memories of their young and final years together.

She describes her young husband as energetic and community-minded, participating in volunteer firefighting and following the Red Sox avidly, among other hobbies. He was an aeronautical technician who worked hard raising two children. They were an active family, moving to Beaufort County upon retirement.

“In retirement, we took each day as it came, but he began to change. It was like watching color fade in an old cloth. There just was less of him,” said Harriet. “It took awhile to recognize that he couldn’t manipulate his tools. He didn’t initiate activity anymore. He didn’t remember recent events. He couldn’t read and understand.”

She was confused herself, and she finally talked to their doctor.

She recalls the neurologist they sought in Greenville used the term “Alzheimer’s disease” for the first time for Norman’s problems. The slow deterioration continued. He could dress and bathe himself. He enjoyed food, but she poured pills and took over the finances they had always done together. They continued long walks that had always been a pleasure to them.

Norman’s sleep patterns became disruptive, exhausting her, so she sought help from social services for someone to be with him and help with housework. This assistance and the Duke Family Support Group she was directed to were helpful for many months.

Harriet’s children were out of state. They kept an eye on what was happening, but trusted her good Midwestern practicality to manage well, and she did.

But during a routine doctor’s visit, Norman slipped off the examination table.

“Like a rag doll, all of a sudden he was gone. The doctor had him hospitalized for evaluation, but, oh, so sadly, Norman could not come home and went to a local nursing home where he got wonderful care for the next several years,” Harriet said.

Harriet visited once or twice daily to help feed Norman and transport him about the halls or for drives in the car. She became friendly with the staff, which was more than caring when his life ran out after 82 years.

Just before Norman died, their daughter Jenny visited from California, hoping to hear his voice.

She kept calling, “Dad? Dad? Talk to me, Dad.”

After several pleas, he indeed answered with, “What the hell do you want?”

She had to laugh, knowing she had heard his voice and he was still in there somewhere.

Harriet acknowledges this ninth decade is a hard one of loss and loneliness. Caregiving was meaningful, if difficult. She wouldn’t wish this kind of end to any happy marriage. Now, she reminisces about their younger years, and she looks forward to being closer to her son’s family one day soon.

Peggy Cohn is a retired geriatric-care manager with a background in public-health nursing and degrees in family studies and aging. These stories are drawn from local caregivers of folks with Alzheimer’s disease. All caregivers and their families are anonymous to protect their privacy and dignity.