For planners, doers and creators, one day at a time is a daily struggle.  

Story by Liz Marchi 

Ihe recent announcement by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor prompted me to ask a very close friend if she would share her personal journey with Alzheimer’s. She and her husband are a vibrant couple who seemed destined to be together. Both are smart, accomplished and curious, and they have a huge zest for life, family and travel. Both are voracious readers and have a great love for Montana old and new. My friend, Beth (alias), kindly agreed.

For several years, Beth has been confiding in me that her husband Tom (alias) seemed to be having subtle personality changes. While always a lover of work, he was spending endless hours at the office without any evidence of new projects or workload. A longtime life-of-the-party kind of guy, he became less enthusiastic about social events, always insisting that Beth write the names down of every person who they would see even for a family event.

There were two emergency room visits over an 18-month period for what Tom described as the flu, which turned out to be very elevated blood pressure spikes and an erratic heartbeat, although Tom had never indicated any symptoms of stress or anxiety. During these times, he seemed unable to answer doctors’ questions about how he felt or what he was thinking. He grew agitated when it was time to compare calendars or talk about schedules. He occasionally took a wrong turn driving and then got annoyed when Beth made a comment.

Beth called a physician friend and described what she was seeing. The physician suggested employing a team approach for diagnosing, including a neurological exam. The last thing Beth was thinking was that her Tom had dementia.

During the first exam, the doctor asked Tom what he liked to do, what he was interested in and what hobbies he had. Tom described several things, including the couple’s interest in politics and public policy. The physician asked Tom who was president. No answer. He asked who was president before the current president. No answer. Then he asked him to name any president. Again, no answer. The doctor moved on. Beth said that appointment was like a death. Someone she loves so deeply, with whom she had shared so much life and who appeared so healthy had slipped away somehow to a place she can’t go with him.   

The next week Beth wrote the doctor a long letter asking a million questions. How do we plan, what do we do, what do we tell our children, can we travel, what does this mean? The doctor left her a voicemail recommending some books to read. Beth was, and is, angry that there is not more of a roadmap for this absolutely life-altering disease, which touches almost every family in this country.

Over the last year, Beth has worked hard to learn and understand more. She told me she is less obsessed with treatment than with finding the patience, love and understanding to make every day count. She loves the Abraham Lincoln quote: “The future comes one day at a time.” For planners, doers and creators, one day at a time is a daily struggle. But Beth told me in every life struggle, there is something learned that leads to a deeper appreciation of every sunrise. 

Many of us are living this journey of dementia. Beth says she gets strength from a support group of others who have lived with Alzheimer’s or lost partners to the disease. It is a spectrum disorder with no two situations exactly alike. She is touched by the compassion and understanding of others. Anyone facing this challenge should seek those who have traveled this road. As with many aspects of aging, it is a journey of acceptance, moments of tender understanding, moments of fear, anger and frustration.  Beth has resolved to keep living and growing, knowing that the only thing she can count on is change.

Liz is fascinated by the various approaches to aging — from denial, to plastic surgery, to running marathons, to depression. Given our current demographics, Liz thinks there is a lot to explore, celebrate and learn from those living and aging in the Flathead Valley. Contact her at liz@lizmarchi.com.