Touched by Alzheimer’s: Unbreakable spirit

By Devin Heilman, originally published in the Coeur d’Alene PressThis is the first in a three-part series that explores the lives of families touched by Alzheimer’s. This incurable and frightening “silent epidemic” affects many people in our community, from the patients losing themselves to the loved ones who watch them slowly disappear.

CDA Press Pt.1 Reese
Shawn Gust/Press: Colleen and Andy Reese, who have been married for 54 years, work together on organizing photographs for an album on Friday at their Post Falls home. Andy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in July of 2012 and is the early stages of the disease.

Life was moving right along for Andy and Colleen Reese.

The Post Falls residents were retired, but busier than ever – attending club meetings, playing bridge, being social, enjoying each others’ company.

Then Andy started forgetting things.

“We would play these games and he wouldn’t know what it was,” said Colleen, 82. “I thought, ‘Yes, he should know that.'”

Andy, 81, had knee surgery in April of 2012. Since then, Colleen noticed a gradually increasing change in his memory.

“I thought it took him a long time to get back to normal,” she said. “I kept telling our doctor, ‘This isn’t normal for him to be so forgetful.'”

Her normally sharp and intelligent husband was not acting quite like himself. Colleen said the anesthesia from the surgery could have had something to do with it, but in hindsight, she knew something was off even before the surgery. She said it was hard to get through to the doctors that something was wrong.

“I’ve found that many, many medical doctors did not want to accept it. They’d give him a little test, and they’d go, ‘He’s just fine,'” she said. “I was really insistent, finally, that he go to a neurologist.”

In July 2012, Andy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a common form of dementia that causes memory loss and other intellectual problems that interfere with daily life.

It has no cure. It only gets worse.

“I was sure surprised, but I did know that something was going on,” Andy said. “You start losing your memory of things, times and dates and people. I’d say, ‘I know that lady, but I can’t think of her name.’ I have a hard time remembering dates, times of day of what’s going to take place. But I never get lost or any of that sort of stuff yet.”

Andy said he doesn’t get upset about the fact that he has the disease. He works with it.

“I’m in my mind saying, ‘I’m going to beat this, one way or another,'” he said. “I think about things. What’s causing all this? And what is the remedy for it? And is it really a disease, or is it something malfunctioning someplace? And can you start over, like you’re a little kid? Learn to read, learn to do math, learn to do all that stuff that you can’t just put your finger on right now.”

As soon as they had the diagnosis, Andy was placed on memory medications and Colleen began conducting research. She said it seemed like something that would happen to other people, not them. She was in shock. With no history of the disease in the family and no friends experiencing it, they were opening a new but terrifying chapter in their lives.

“I wanted to learn as much as I could,” Colleen said. “It was frightening because he was an intelligent man. He would try to fix something and he couldn’t remember. He used to be a Jack of all trades.”

Shawn Gust/Press: Although being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Andy Reese is still able to drive locally and attend club meetings and, along with his wife, is active in the early stage social engagement program.
Shawn Gust/Press: Although being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Andy Reese is still able to drive locally and attend club meetings and, along with his wife, is active in the early stage social engagement program.

Andy is still in the early stage of the disease, so he can drive around town and go to club meetings. He takes a lot of notes, and although he can’t remember everything that happens at the meetings, he enjoys them for the moment. He and Colleen exercise at the gym and they go to spinning classes when possible.

“It has been up and down,” Colleen said. “He has good days, he has bad days. He has days when I think there’s nothing wrong with him, and other days when I think, ‘He is really going downhill.’ And he is going downhill, but not as rapidly as some. I’m very thankful for that.”

They have also added to their agenda the Alzheimer’s Association’s early stage social engagement program, which brings together patients and care partners experiencing the first stages of the disease. It’s a social support group for patients to stay mentally engaged and for loved ones to share problems and experiences. Colleen said she and Andy have become very close to others in the program.

“When one of them loses a spouse, it really hurts,” she said.

In spite of the dismal prognosis that accompanies Alzheimer’s, Andy and Colleen remain positive and strong.

“The good part is we both get up in the morning, we both have a positive attitude, he’s sure he’s going to beat it,” Colleen said. “We live a busy life.”

And Andy’s unsinkable spirit has him optimistic about a cure.

“I always like to relate back to infantile paralysis,” he said. “When I was younger, that was the big thing after WWII. There was the March of Dimes to raise money for the disease. I kind of feel that’s the same way it is with Alzheimer’s. There’s a cure out there someplace, all we have to do is find it now, and utilize it.”

Colleen is determined to stay beside her husband and weather the storm with him.

“If he no longer knows me, I won’t stay here, I won’t keep this house by myself. I’ll probably go to Garden Plaza,” she said. “As long as he knows me, I will stay with him.

“I figure, he’s given me 54 years, I guess I can give him 54 back,” she said, smiling at him.

“I’m not convinced yet that this disease is going to get the best of me,” Andy said, smiling back.

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