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After an Alzheimer's diagnosis, married caregivers live out their commitment 'in sickness and in health’

Dale Finck holds a portrait of his wife, Kathy, at their home in The Villages. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News
Dale Finck holds a portrait of his wife, Kathy, at their home in The Villages. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

As Alzheimer’s disease increases in Florida, more and more family members are faced with the slow and painful challenge of providing care.

Here’s a look at how some Floridians in that situation are true to their commitment “in sickness and in health.”

Married for 55 years

For husbands and wives across Florida, Alzheimer’s disease tests their vows. Can they do the hard things?

For some, like 76-year-old Villages resident Dale Finck, the answer is yes.

“It’s for better or worse, and this is definitely as bad as I could ever imagine it,” Finck said in an interview at his home. “But never for a minute did I ever question that I wasn’t going to do all I could do.”

Finck’s wife, Kathy, was diagnosed in 2018. This summer, when she declined rapidly and began falling down, he placed her in a memory care facility.

Finck said it was his hardest moment so far.

His wife is a retired nurse with a big heart and an outgoing personality. She was “the rock of the family,” Finck said. “And she … was the love of my life, always has been.”

The couple have been married for 55 years. They lived in Vermont and raised two daughters.

Finck said Kathy’s parents both had dementia and he saw the early signs long before his wife was diagnosed. There were times when she didn’t know who he was.

Finck said it was a slow transition until he suddenly realized he was making all the decisions. Gradually, he became her full-time caregiver. He had to choose her clothes. Then he had to dress her.

“Then things got where you had to, you know, follow up on her going to the bathroom,” he said. “Then she became incontinent.”

The old Kathy shows through sometimes with a humorous one-liner, Finck said. “And then out of the blue sometimes when we’re visiting she just looks up and says, ‘I love you.’ Those are the big hits right now.”

Finck reflected on the growing impact of Alzheimer’s.

“Being in a retirement community,” he said, “especially here, there’s hardly a soul you talk to that doesn’t either have somebody in the family or a friend or somebody’s been touched by this disease.”

From one ‘P’ to another ‘P’

Sarah McLeod works as a mental health provider for people living with Alzheimer’s. In an online interview, she said one of her main jobs is helping clients learn to do the hard things.

The toll on spouses and partners can be heavy — financially, physically, socially and emotionally. There’s depression, anxiety, loneliness, grief and loss of intimacy.

The marriage relationship shifts beneath them. McLeod said one husband explains it this way: “[T]here’s been a transformation from one ‘P’ to another ‘P.’ And what he means is that his role has changed from being a partner to being more of a parent.”

McLeod said the caregiver needs support from someone they trust, “someone that you feel safe with, that you can say ugly things to, hard things to, embarrassing, shameful things to, and they’re not going anywhere.”

Support groups help, so does understanding the disease and how it progresses. One resource, the Alzheimer’s Association, has information and connections for people taking care of someone with the disease.

‘A good life’ helping others

In Clermont, David Sims brings his expertise as a nurse, tracking the latest research and cutting-edge treatments, as he takes care of husband Ed Patterson.

David Sims, left, a nurse who works at the Orange County jail, is committed to supporting his husband, Ed Patterson, as he deals with an early stage of dementia. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Sims said Patterson, who is 75, has been diagnosed with early stages of dementia with heavy burden of amyloid placque which can progress into Alzheimer’s.

“We’re doing everything we can to slow progression down,” Sims said. “And that’s why it’s so important to have early detection.”

Patterson was part of an Alzheimer’s Association’s advisory group. Other residents in their gated community come to them seeking advice when they get a diagnosis.

They fear that life won’t be good, but Patterson says he and his husband have a different focus.

“And I think that’s where David and I have taken our life, is focusing on what we can do to have a good life and help others,” Patterson said.

Sims said their roles have changed — he pays the bills now and does the driving — but, really, he’s doing what he’s always done, taking care of his partner.

Copyright 2022 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

David Sims, left, a nurse who works at the Orange County jail, is committed to supporting his husband, Ed Patterson, as he deals with an early stage of dementia. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News
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David Sims, left, a nurse who works at the Orange County jail, is committed to supporting his husband, Ed Patterson, as he deals with an early stage of dementia. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Joe Byrnes