Sylvia and Chris Lee-Thompson recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary. They spent their careers as Lutheran pastors and moved all over the U.S with their two sons, serving at different churches. Last year, in the middle of a sermon, Sylvia lost her place and couldn’t remember what she was saying. This was one of the signs Sylvia and Chris noticed before her diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s. This year, Sylvia and Chris will participate in the Pierce County Walk to End Alzheimer’s in honor of their family and other families facing this disease.
Sylvia and Chris met when they were both in college — she in Ohio and he in Iowa. It was during a visit to see her brother that Sylvia met his friend, Chris. The two grew quite fond of each other, and when the visit was over, they started exchanging letters three times a week and calling whenever they could. Their families ended up spending Christmas together, and later, during a visit over spring break, the two decided to get married in May of the next year.
Sylvia and Chris were married in a Lutheran church and had a small outdoor reception. Chris’s mother made Julekake, they decorated with lilacs and sang madrigals “Our wedding was just the way we wanted it,” said Sylvia.
After graduating, Chris and Sylvia traveled around the midwest, Chris working as a pastor and Sylvia building a career in social services. Sylvia went to seminary in 2003 and began serving as a pastor in 2007.
In early 2020, Chris and Sylvia were living in Mount Vernon, WA where Sylvia was serving as a pastor. This is when Sylvia began to really notice signs that something was wrong, like the day she lost her place during her sermon. “She had even forgotten that she preached. So that made it clear to her and the congregation that there was a problem,” said Chris.
“I think the people at church knew after that Sunday,” replied Sylvia. The congregation president at Sylvia’s church eventually suggested that it might be time for her to take disability.
For Sylvia, she knew it was something more serious than regular age-related memory loss because.“Things seemed off,” she said, “I went to a regular doctor and he said that I should see another doctor for a second opinion.”
The couple went to multiple doctors looking for answers. Sylvia took some standard tests for dementia at her appointments. “They asked me some questions, and sometimes I just could not find the answer. They asked me to name as many animals as I could in a certain amount of time, and I could only name about four,” she said.
On April 1, 2020 Sylvia finally received her diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s. Because of COVID-19, she had to learn her diagnosis over the phone.
Shortly after her diagnosis, Chris and Sylvia moved to Tacoma to be closer to their sons and their wives. Chris says the transition was more difficult because of the pandemic. They had a hard time integrating into the community and building new social connections, but Chris and Sylvia do enjoy spending time with their kids and grandchildren.
Sylvia is adjusting to her new normal. “In my condition I am not able to do as much stuff as I used to be able to do, and that’s hard for Chris. And yet, I am able to still do certain things. It’s just hard. I was used to being able to be ‘with it’ and I’m just not as ‘with it’ now, I guess,” she said.
Chris has been learning that his role of husband is now transitioning to the role of caregiver. “It’s been a big change, and that’s an understatement. This is not the retirement I signed up for. I’ve never been a caregiver before. I have given care as a father and a husband and a pastor. But, to be in the role of a caregiver is different. So it’s a role I am having to learn,” he said.
“I think it’s hard for us as a couple as our marriage has been very mutual and we have shared in all decisions. Much more of that is falling on me now. I am the decision-maker. It’s a change in our relationship,” Chris said. “But, I remind myself on a regular basis that Sylvia is still, despite what is going on in her brain, the same beautiful person that I married 46 years ago. And that in spite of the fact that she can’t remember week-to-week or even day-to-day what’s happening next, she is still one of the most kind and generous people that I have ever known.”
Held annually in more than 600 communities nationwide, the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s® is the world’s largest fundraiser for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. This inspiring event calls on participants of all ages and abilities to join the fight against the disease. Find a Walk near you at alzwa.org/walk.