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Alzheimer's Series: Coping With a Spouse's Diagnosis

KSMU's ongoing series on Alzheimer's is focusing on Dr. Bill Sunderwirth and his family. Dr. Bill was diagnosed with the disease a few months ago.

Karen Sunderwirth met her husband Bill in a rather unusual way. As a newly-divorced mom, in a new town, she discovered that she needed a physical exam to start a new nursing job. The doctor who gave her the exam was Bill Sunderwirth. It was the beginning of a long romance…

"He was very pleasant. He was an outgoing person. He was interesting to be around. He has a really good voice, and I always admired a good voice."

She smiles as she’s asked what still attracts her to him 42 years later. He aggravates her to death sometimes, she laughs, but then she gets serious…

"We still enjoy the same things. We like the same foods, we talk about things even though he repeats the same thing over a dozen times, I just try to direct it in another path so that he has more stimulation."

Not long ago, Dr. Bill was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He’s still in the early stages where the main symptoms are forgetfulness and repeating bits of conversation. And Karen is planning for down the road when the symptoms worsen. She’s suspected for some time that her husband might have Alzheimer’s and the fact that others in his family have the disease gave her even more reason to suspect that Dr. Bill might have the disease.She says it’s hard to accept the fact that someone you love has Alzheimer’s…

"The person that you knew that was there is not there anymore, and you have a disconnect. It's very hard to deal with it."

Karen Sunderwirth and her family have looked to the Alzheimer’s Association of Southwest Missouri for help, and what she’s learned there gives her some comfort. She plans to take part in programs and support groups that they offer…

"I think the support group is going to be monumental. I think anyone that's a caregiver where you are with someone 24 hours a day, you need somebody to talk to, you can relate. At least you dump your load, you know, and they do the same, so it's good."

Dr. Bill’s stepdaughter and Karen’s daughter Mary Reichard has attended some support group meetings where she says she learned the basics of the disease…

"It is a disease. It's not a mental disorder, so it's literally an undoing of the organic brain. It's not schizophrenia or bipolar or something like that."

And they learned what to expect as the disease progresses…

"You can't just say, 'go to the refrigerator and get the butter and the milk,' that's going to be too complicated. You have to go with them and say, 'let's go get the butter and the milk,' because, by the time they move the big box out of the way and get the milk, they'll forget what the second thing you asked was and not to become angry and look at it as an opportunity to cultivate patience."

As Karen anticipates the months and years ahead, one thing she’s concerned about is having time for herself. As any caregiver knows, being able to get away even for just a little while is important. But it’s hard for Karen to ask for help. Her daughter Mary says her mom will have to get used to doing so…

"Is it hard for you?"

"Yeah, because they're busy. They have a life of their own, and you feel like you're infringing on somebody else's life, and this can be a hard thing."

Karen Sunderwirth’s philosophy is “all you can do is the best you can do,” and when it gets to the point where her best isn’t good enough, she’ll make the best arrangements she can for her husband’s care. In the meantime, she tries hard to make life as fulfilling as possible for Dr. Bill…

"He likes people, so I try to make ice cream and have people over so that he has a good time, and I enjoy it. It's extra work, yes, but it's no more stressful than sitting around looking at each other, so I'd just rather do something, so I can do that."

And she has some advice for others caring for a spouse with Alzheimer's. She says you need to realize, though this is no longer the person you married, they still have priorities in your life, and, she says, you do the best you can.

For KSMU News, I'm Michele Skalicky.