Death of a Personality


A wife reflects on her husband’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and on the promises of eternal life.

It has been fifty years since my husband and I knelt at an altar in the Salt Lake Temple and were married for time and eternity. We were not able to celebrate our golden anniversary, though, because my husband has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for nearly ten years.

I first noticed the change in Glenn when he began driving past stop signs as if he hadn’t seen them. After he caused two minor accidents in four months, I knew he had to see a doctor before a tragedy occurred.

In a preliminary examination, the doctor asked Glenn a few questions—easy questions. “Who is president of the United States?” I was shocked that Glenn didn’t know. “Who is the president of our church?” He couldn’t answer that one, either.

“What was your wife’s last name before you were married?” the doctor asked. Glenn’s face brightened, and he said, “Lola!” The doctor repeated the question. “Mr. Walters, what was your wife’s last name before you were married?” My husband looked puzzled and then crestfallen when he said he did not remember.

An unnamed fear gripped me. How could he forget my maiden name? What had happened to him?

Four days of hospital testing resulted in a diagnosis of pre-senile dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. The doctor’s explanation of the disease was sketchy. He said that there was no reversal, no treatment, no cure and that the forgetfulness would become progressively worse. He advised Glenn not to drive any more and to apply for early retirement.

Not realizing the full implication of the diagnosis, I did not feel so much alarmed as disappointed. On the way home, I gripped the steering wheel and thought, “This is not what we had planned for our retirement. We want to travel, to serve a mission!”

For many years Glenn had been one of the great Explorer leaders in our valley. He had a large and active post that had gained wide recognition. He had received numerous Scouting awards, including the Silver Beaver. I had always pictured him giving valuable service to a struggling Scout program somewhere in the mission field.

After I stopped the car in our garage, Glenn walked over to his four-wheel drive van, took hold of the door handle, looked over at me and said, “It makes me just sick.” He had bought the car for fishing—his favorite pastime—and had driven it for only one year.

I rushed over to him. “Don’t worry, Honey. I can still drive. I’ll take you fishing.” I had already made up my mind that his forgetfulness was not going to mean the end of all our plans, all our enjoyment of life. I could carry on for both of us.

During the early years of his illness we were able to travel—Europe, Hawaii, Alaska, Church historical sites, countless short trips. And I have pleasant memories of the many peaceful hours I spent in the car, reading or napping, while Glenn fished. Often, relatives or friends took him fishing or to ball games. He walked places whenever possible, and I bought him an identification bracelet in case he got lost. He was busy, and he was happy.

But as the dementia increased, Glenn was forced to quit all activities that required him to think. He gave up his Scouting and his Church callings. He lost interest in ball games. He quit reading, and he was unable to follow programs on television. It was no longer safe for him to use the lawn mower, and, eventually, he began to get lost when he was out walking. With no resources of his own to keep him occupied, he naturally became restless. He paced back and forth, waiting for me to do something with him or take him somewhere.

By then I was retired from teaching, so I spent all my time with him. We went fishing more often, worked in the yard, shopped, visited relatives, took long drives. I also walked with him because I wanted him to stay physically strong. During the winter, when the sidewalks were icy, we drove to a nearby shopping mall and walked through the stores for exercise. I often longed for a little time to myself, but I rarely took any because I felt compelled to do everything I could think of to fill his restless hours with some kind of diversion. The years ahead seemed endless to me—meaningless.

One spring morning, after a long and confining Idaho winter, Glenn and I decided the roads were dry enough for us to drive out to his favorite fishing spot. When we arrived at the pond, I settled back for a morning of reading, and Glenn walked to the water with his fishing pole. After about half an hour, I noticed he had not begun to fish but was still working with his pole. I walked over to him and saw, with sinking heart, that he was trying to make the bait stay on his line without using a hook. He had forgotten how to fish—the last pleasure he had in life.

As we stood together that spring morning, I thought, “Alzheimer’s disease means death—death of a personality.” And that is just what it has meant. He lost first one ability and then another. Finally, he even forgot my first name. Then he suffered two heart attacks that added physical disability to mental. I often cried, why did all this happen to a man who had given so much of his life in service to others?

Before I became a teacher, I had been a nurse, so I had learned the skills needed to care for the physically ill. But nothing had prepared me for the anguish of watching my husband gradually slip beyond my reach. Each day brought new heartaches. His illness had meant the end of the enjoyment of life after all, for both of us.

The problems of caring for him increased steadily. Alzheimer patients often become difficult to handle. Glenn became obstinate and refused to let me help him do what he no longer could do for himself. It was impossible to reason with him, because by then he had lost the ability to talk and understand language. Our days became long struggles of getting through bathing, dressing, shaving. I was constantly torn between impatience—even anger—and deep compassion for my helpless husband. I had somehow managed to get us through the other stages of his illness, but I felt totally defeated by this one. The doctor kept urging me to put Glenn in a nursing home so he could be cared for by people trained to handle Alzheimer patients.

One night, as I lay sleepless, feeling discouraged and very much alone, I remembered a scripture in John where the Savior had promised his disciples that he would not leave them comfortless. I turned on the light, reached for my Bible, and opened it to chapter 14. At the end of verse 26 I paused, then reread that verse: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.”

Why, I had never thought of the Holy Ghost as a teacher! I had prayed continually for the strength to care for Glenn, but I had relied on my own wisdom. In spite of all the problems, I wanted to keep my husband home with me. But I needed to learn how to care for him, and I knew I needed more help than I could get from any earthly source.

Since then, as I have turned to the Lord for help, the Holy Ghost has been like a living presence by my side, comforting and teaching me. The Spirit made it clear to me that what I thought was obstinacy in Glenn actually was fear, fear caused by his confusion. The Spirit taught me how to care for him without creating fear. I now lead him slowly through the daily routines, explaining each step and showing him what I am going to do. For instance, I hold his razor in front of him until it catches his attention, then say, “I’m going to shave your face, so hold very still.” And I constantly assure him that his reactions are correct and appreciated: “That’s good! Perfect! Thank you for helping.” If for some reason he shows fear, the Spirit prompts me to calm him by patting his clenched hands until they relax and stroking away the lines of tension from his face while quietly repeating, “You’re all right. It’s all right.” I do not think Glenn understands my words, but he responds to my touch and my tone by allowing me to serve his needs.

Although Glenn is mentally and physically an infant now, I am at peace. My heart is not troubled by the present, nor am I afraid of the future. I know the Holy Ghost will comfort and guide me.

I do not lead a lonely, cheerless life. I have family close by, and our friends still include me in their plans. Someone stays with Glenn while I go out for an afternoon or evening or when I take a vacation each summer. When I am home with my husband, I enjoy gardening, sewing, reading, and cooking family dinners. And I have begun to do some writing. I’m quite proud of the family histories I have completed.

Viktor Frankl quotes the great Russian writer Dostoevsky as saying that the only thing he dreaded in life was not to be worthy of his sufferings. But Frankl maintains that suffering ceases to be suffering when one finds meaning in it. (Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Beacon Press, 1962, pp. 105, 114–15.) My life has meaning. I am serving the Lord by caring for one of his helpless children.

My husband was a fine and righteous man when he was stricken. If I can endure, we have the promise of being together in eternity. I like to imagine kneeling with him at an altar in a holy place, looking across into his eyes, and seeing full recognition of me … hearing him speak my name … knowing his personality is alive again—forever.

[illustration] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Lola B. Walters, a retired English teacher at Ricks College, is a visiting teaching supervisor in the Rexburg Tenth Ward, Rexburg Idaho East Stake.