“When you love someone with dementia, the goal is not perfection… it’s okay to be good enough.”
Years ago, when I was just starting my career as an intern principal in the Anchorage School District, I met a wonderful teacher, Rebecca “Becky” Ann Clement. Becky, along with her sister Beverly, were the founders of the Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska. She would often share her daily experiences caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s with me. Little did I know, that one day in the future, I would also be a caregiver to my husband, Jerry, who is living with Alzheimer’s.
Jerry and I have been happily married for 33 years. We met in Delta Junction where Jerry was Assistant Superintendent at the district, and I was a single mother with three young children to support. Jerry helped me get a job at the school library and encouraged me to finish up my teaching degree. We became good friends, and after a few years, we fell in love and became official partners in marriage. Over the years our friendship and love have only deepened.
During the early years of our marriage, Jerry was always my biggest supporter. While I worked, he helped take care of the home front so I could pursue my career as a teacher. He was a steady and loving presence for the family, attending games and activities, packing lunches and keeping things on an even keel. Jerry always loved serving as an educator throughout Alaska – from the North Slope, Barrow, Point Hope, and many other rural places in-between. He always loved the people he met and worked with, and they felt the same about him. These are some of the special memories that spark joy and bring back highlights of his life before dementia.
Later, we moved to Wasilla and I made the daily commute to Anchorage as a school principal – a job I loved. In 2003, Jerry had two transient ischemic attacks (TIA’s), or in other words a brief stroke-like attack that happens suddenly. I started noticing some cognitive decline but didn’t pay much attention to the symptoms at first. After his last TIA, he received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, which is also referred to as mixed dementia. This is when I started noticing a real decline in his thinking abilities.
About eight years ago, I gave up my career so I could devote more time to Jerry’s care. This is a decision I do not regret because it has taught me so much about myself and my husband. I’ve learned so many lessons about life. The biggest lesson is the importance of patience and humility, and the gift of helping someone with kindness and love. I’ve learned so much from my husband – his ability to meet the challenges of Alzheimer’s with such grace and calmness. Dementia tends to strip away some of our learned behaviors or how we want to appear to others, with Jerry I now get to see the whole person and that is rare. He can still make me laugh and his manners are still intact. He is still the gentleman he was the day I married him and, to this day, he insists on walking along the right side of me.
About six years ago we sold our family home and relocated to Raven Landing, an independent living community in Fairbanks. For the three years, we lived there; it provided Jerry friendship, activities, social events, and ways to be active in the community – all in a safe environment. Not too long ago, I had to make the difficult decision to place my husband in an assisted living home. I did what I thought was the best for him. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said it hasn’t been lonely for me. Perhaps the hardest part was second-guessing my own decision. Since then, I’ve learned that I can’t judge others’ situations in comparison to our own. Each journey is, indeed, unique.
I am so grateful for my family and my amazing women friends. They really help support and hold me up when I need it the most. The Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska has also supported Jerry and I with engaging classes, informative educational opportunities, and much needed socialization. All of these supports have helped me be the best caregiver I can be. I believe they will work for you too.
I hope my story will encourage others in their caregiving journey to celebrate your special times together, the memories you hold dear to your heart, and the real gift of meeting someone living with dementia where they are in their journey.