Alzheimer’s changes couple’s plans

Submitted photo - Tim and Nancy Thompson had this picture taken in anticipation of their 30th wedding anniversary, which was July 17.


By TIM JOHNSON, Staff Writer,
Published: Monday, August 24, 2009 11:00 AM CDT
Their golden years weren’t supposed to be this way.

Tim and Nancy Thompson of Neola had planned to retire. They figured they would get a vacation home someplace warm, do some traveling and take it easy.

Tim’s Alzheimer’s disease changed all that.

“It changes your life so radically,” Nancy said. “We went from having plans to retire and move to having me go back to school and then work full-time and just forget about retirement.”

Until a few years ago, Tim, 62, worked as radiologic technologist at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Omaha. Then he started having memory problems.

“I lost my memory,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why I had a problem remembering things. A lot of it had to do with the profile of my vocabulary. I lost a lot of words that I used to know that were very descriptive of what I was dealing with. If someone else would say it, I would remember it. It was frustrating.”

“He wasn’t really able to work full-time anywhere after that,” Nancy said. “We didn’t know what was happening.”

Nancy went back to school full-time at Iowa Western Community College and earned an associate degree in the administrative assistant program, she said. She worked at the college during school and got on full time after she graduated.

Since leaving the VA Hospital, Tim has had a custodial job and a couple other positions but has gradually shifted his focus to volunteer work. He has done construction work for Habitat for Humanity and regularly helps serve meals at the Council Bluffs Senior Center and deliver Meals on Wheels. He also runs errands for people and takes them to appointments and pharmacies.

Tim’s doctor at the VA Hospital tracked down the culprit.

“Dr. Gonzalez listened very carefully to what he was saying and got Tim on the right path,” Nancy said.

He was “very helpful,” Tim said. In February, Tim had an MRI that confirmed the diagnosis, he said.

“One of the most thorough and complete diagnoses is through an MRI, because it really gives a complete profile of the condition of the brain; and they can see the cell situation – the cells decreasing,” he said.

His physician put him on a medication that is supposed to slow the progress of the disease.

In his case, it was a surprise, Nancy said.

“He doesn’t have anybody in his family that has it – especially the early-onset,” she said.

While age is a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s, it isn’t a pre-requisite for the disease, said Clayton Freeman, program director for the Midlands Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We think in the U.S. there’s probably 2,000-plus cases of what we call early-onset Alzheimer’s disease” – cases where the patients are younger than 65 years old.

“They have a whole different set of problems,” said Rosalie Shepherd, education coordinator for Southwest Iowa.

The Thompsons have joined an early-onset support group in Omaha sponsored by the Midlands Chapter and an early-stage group offered at St. John Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs.

“She keeps me scheduled with the other people; and that’s very valuable, because we’re all dealing with the same thing,” Tim said.

“Support groups are really important,” Nancy said. “We’ve become friends with a couple of the other couples there.”

Besides receiving support from other couples dealing with Alzheimer’s, they have listened to presentations and received material from the Alzheimer’s Association, Nancy said.

“They taught us the different stages,” she said. “They teach us about safety. They encouraged us to take care of power of attorney legal and end-of-life kinds of things – and we did that.

“The safety part is important; because, at certain times of the disease, his vision could be affected – his visual acuity.”

Fortunately, Tim’s eyesight has not been affected.

“There’s a lot of tings I used to do that I don’t do anymore,” he said.

He hasn’t taken his boat out for a while, and he hasn’t driven to California by himself like he used to do every year.

But the couple keeps on keeping on and making adjustments as the need arises. Tim continues to do volunteer work, as well as work around home, Nancy said.

“He takes care of the house, and he takes care of the animals (pet dog and cat),” she said. “He mows the lawn. He takes care of this whole acre we have here. I leave lists for him and notes. We talk to each other on the phone a lot. I try to be real supportive.”

“And she is,” Tim said.

“I don’t want him to be uncertain about what’s going on,” Nancy said. “And we’re very much a part of this together. I think we’re doing pretty good with this. I think we take pretty good care of each other, don’t you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Tim said. “We really enjoy spending time together.”

“We take road trips together,” Nancy said. “Our hope is in Jesus Christ. He’s our hope. Death is inevitable here on this planet. It just comes in varying forms.

“When we first started going to the Alzheimer’s group, we were told this is a journey – and it is,” she said. “But I don’t feel like it’s a tragic one.”