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A golden commitment
What does a loving Catholic husband do when he learns his wife has Alzheimer's?

by Venessa Anderson

August 19th, 2001, was a day of great joy for Bill and Carol Andrew. They celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Bill felt a deep sense of satisfaction for having the opportunity to share so many years with his wife, yet he couldn't help but sigh with relief. Several years ago, Carol had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Yet, she made it through Mass, the brunch, and open house without much disruption.

"Her demeanor could have been a lot worse," he admits, acknowledging the unpredictability of Carol's illness.

Bill and Carol Andrew, of Winter Haven, Florida, have had to come to terms with the devastating disease that has robbed Carol of her once vivacious personality. About four million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and experts predict that the number will grow to 14 million by 2050. While there have been advances in care and diagnosis of Alzheimer's, there still is no cure -- short of a miracle.

Prayer is essential to Bill and Carol's well-being. Bill thinks of his care for Carol as a corporal work of mercy. He believes that his sacrifices call him to holiness, to become an image of The Divine Mercy. "I have to carry many crosses in caring for my wife," he says. "It is something that I am committed to do, and God gives me the strength to carry on."

Coping with the unexpected

Bill and Carol did not expect this to happen. They met over 52 years ago at a dance in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It was love at first sight, Bill claims. "I met Carol, and we danced all night," he says. "We fell in love right there." Bill asked Carol to marry him on Holy Saturday in 1951; they were married five months later.

Bill and Carol began to build their family soon after marriage. They have two sons: Glenn, 49, and Neil, 47. The family moved to Florida in 1960, so Bill could pursue his career.

"We never thought of retirement," Bill insists. "We were too preoccupied with work and the kids. Carol was active. She never sat still."

Then, Bill began to notice small changes in Carol seven years ago when she stopped reading the newspaper. He realized something was seriously wrong when Carol got lost on her way to the beauty salon -- a place she had been going to for many years.

It took several years for physicians to have any real certainty that Carol had Alzheimer's. "Finally, in 1999, we were told that there was a 90 percent probability that Carol had Alzheimer's," Bill explains. "While the news wasn't encouraging, there was always a 10 percent chance of a miracle."

Providing "round-the-clock care"

Bill's top priority now is taking care of Carol. "I intend to provide round-the-clock care for Carol as long as is humanly possible," he says. Unfortunately, today's treatment of Alzheimer's disease is only effective in the early stages of the diseases, and Carol now has late-stage Alzheimer's.

Despite the fact that Carol's disease has manifested slowly because of Bill's personal treatment, she is still losing her faculties. "She really can't walk alone any more," Bill says. "I need to walk with her and hold her up, or she will fall. But it's important that she keep walking to keep her muscles from atrophying."

Eating is another trial. "She can eat a lot of finger foods like carrots, apples, and cookies," he explains. "But she must be spoon fed and her cup must be held by me if she is to eat without making a mess." Bill also prepares a nutritious shake as her primary sustenance, so Carol can receive the right amount of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals.

Fortunately, Carol still has some of her long-term memory. "She recognizes me, her two sons, daughters-in-law, and grandson," Bill says. "She also recognizes friends, and remembers the polka music from when we were young and used to dance to it." Her short-term memory is not as sharp, which is indicative of the disease.

Bill insists on maintaining Carol's quality of life and "mainstreaming" her with activities and a weekly dinner with friends. Bill also sets aside time for himself to focus on respite care and attend a support group. He says that it is just as important to maintain the quality of life for the caregiver as it is for the patient.

Sharing a life of faith

One of the hardest things for Bill to do is keep Carol engaged all day. "She enjoys watching EWTN, especially the daily Mass and Mother Angelica," he says. "It brings her back to her roots, to the Catholic faith." Bill himself has a strong faith that he credits to his grandmother, who raised him after his mother passed away when he was six years old.

Maintaining a daily schedule and reinforcing daily basics is essential to Bill's "round-the-clock" day as a caregiver. "Carol and I say our morning and evening prayers together. Usually I will say them, and she will listen. The Rosary, especially the Hail Mary, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet are engraved in Carol's mind."

And despite the havoc that the disease has caused in their lives, Bill and Carol have been able to take several important trips, including one to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA, in 1999. They will never forget their time in Stockbridge.

"While there, we met Maureen Digan -- whose healing was recognized as the miracle for Sr. Faustina's beatification -- and she spent several hours praying and talking with us," he remembers. "As a result of the encouragement of Maureen and her husband, Bob, we decided to start our own Divine Mercy group in Winter Haven."

The group hosted their first Divine Mercy Conference in April of 2000. "I realized from that conference that this is where my faith life is," Bill admits. "So many good personal and spiritual relationships have occurred from our devotion to Jesus, The Divine Mercy." The group is now planning another conference for March of 2002.

Wearing a badge of courage

Some have noticed that this journey in his married life has changed Bill. "My dad's become a champion of people with Alzheimer's, and he's really become more himself," says Glenn Andrew. "Now, he's open with his affection for my mother and has actually become a more vulnerable, sensitive man who wears that vulnerability as a badge of courage."

"Love has different levels," Bill believes. "The highest form builds upon the lower levels, and it's next to God in terms of love. My faith life is built around caring for Carol," Bill insists. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't say many times, 'Jesus, help me,' and 'Jesus, I trust in You!' I have put my faith in God to bear this cross."

Tonight, when Bill puts Carol to bed, he will hold her hand, just as he has done for fifty years, and together they will say their prayers. This night, like every night since Carol became ill, Bill will pray for a miracle.

Venessa Anderson is multimedia editor of the Fairfield County Catholic Newspaper in Bridgeport, CT. She lives with her husband in Milford, CT.

©2001 Marians of the Immaculate Conception. All rights reserved.