Volunteering for Gail, my forever friend

By: Alan Jaffe

Wedding 1960 1e (2)
Alan and Gail on their wedding day

My name is Alan Jaffe. I am 81 years old and retired, and I volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter. 

I have had a very diversified life in careers and education. However, the constant aspect of my life over all of those years has been my relationship with my wife, Gail. We were married for 58 years from 1960-2018. l was with Gail over 66 years. We met in grade school when we were 13 years old. We became friends in the summer of 1952 when we were part of a group of kids playing at a swimming pool. We grew up together through grade school, high school, college, marriage, and graduate school. We have three boys and six grandchildren.

Gale was my childhood friend, life partner, mother of our children and friend forever.

She was proud to be a professional mental health practitioner and a psychoanalytical therapist for over 40 years. She was highly intellectual and her library held hundred of books — she read at least three books a week. She also found time to become a Master Gardener, a world traveler and a close friend to almost everyone she met. Our sons became her life, and they became the foundation for all she did to achieve a meaningful life.

Gail began recognizing changes in herself in 2001-2002, a time when she had to deal with some mental and physical health issues. Eventually, she sought medical help. While her physical issues outnumbered her mental ones, all the time they were becoming related issues. 

Then, around 2008 she began to feel and notice more changes that interfered with her daily life. Because she worked in mental health, Gail was educated on the early signs of dementia and recognized them in herself. She consulted with a neurologist and other doctors. Sometime during 2008-2009, her neurologist confirmed there could be some accuracy in Gail’s concerns. Gail began seeing her neurologist regularly and dealt with the slow and persistent changes for about nine years. 

Alan and Gail 1980 Key Biscayne (2)
Alan and Gail dancing in 1980

In 2015, her neurologist advised us she was diagnosing Gail’s illness as Alzheimer’s disease. In the last few years, Gail had included me in all her doctor’s visits. She wanted me to help her remember what she wanted to tell the doctor and what the doctor told her. Gail wanted me to help her remember instructions for changes that were meant to make her life a little better. 

At first, Gail succeeded in “fooling” her friends, but chose to share the diagnosis with our children. Denial was not tolerated when it came to her children. After we told the kids, it was only a few months later that she shared the information with friends and her professional associates.

In 2014, I became Gail’s full-time caregiver. I was not prepared for assuming this position, as no one really is. I learned by reading recommended books including clinical research published by the Mayo Clinic and other reference books referred to me by many informed people about the disease and caregiving. This information was indispensable for me to see and accept what was happening.

Gail died in August 2018 after having lived with this disease and other medical issues for many years. She died of complications related to the progress of her Alzheimer’s disease.

For me, becoming a caregiver was a natural process. We had been dependent on each other for over 50 years, and the last five years seemed to be part of the whole plan. I don’t remember “thinking about it.” I do know I gradually realized I was doing more for her and for us. It became more obvious that she couldn’t remember her daily tasks. These routines were becoming more difficult and more obvious — you might recognize some things like taking calls from friends, staying up with appointments, and grooming and dressing.                       

One of my goals as a caregiver was to understand how difficult this disease was for her. When Gail died, people were filled with questions about how I felt, if I was relieved my caregiving duties were over or if I thought Gail was thinking of me somewhere. I don’t have any answers. 

After Gail passed, I did not know how or what I could do to get involved and make a contribution in the field of Alzheimer’s disease. I came across the Alzheimer’s Association as a volunteer opportunity. Volunteering was one way to do both — to get involved and make a contribution. 

I stay motivated as a volunteer because I feel the need to give something to others while I can. I get the benefit of knowing I am doing something for others, and of course, for myself. Assisting at the Washington State Chapter keeps me active and I enjoy being with the office staff.

I do believe Gail would have wanted me to talk to our family, to our children and to professionals about grieving and mourning and whatever else comes up while doing so. Some professionals in mental health may agree with me when I say, “talking helps.” How does it help? I don’t know, but it does.

Are you interested in volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association? Go to alz.org/volunteer to learn more about our many different volunteer opportunities!

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