When company stops coming

Published 9:15 am Monday, October 12, 2009

From her wheelchair, Marjorie Thompson stares out the window, her hazel eyes vacant. Palmer, her husband of 67 years, lifts her limp arms and swings them in time to the strains of big band music and she faintly smiles. 

It is the only glimmer of his wife Palmer will see that day, so he treasures it. 

Like millions, Marjorie is the victim of Alzheimer’s disease, an affliction that has robbed her of her old age and robbed her family of the happy, talkative woman who loved to dance. 

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Marjorie, one of 10 children living on her family’s farm in Freeborn County, caught neighbor Palmer Thompson’s eye because she was a fun girl who knew how to milk cows. She was perfect. 

The day after Valentine’s Day in 1942 he married that girl and has been with her every day since.

But the dances, the church socials, the trips to visit their ever growing brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are over. 

All Marjorie can do now is stare. Sometimes she sleeps. Palmer wakes every few hours during the night to turn her so she doesn’t get bedsores, and dresses her each day as if company is coming and life is normal. 

But life is anything but for the 89-year-old devoted husband who opted to care for his wife at home. 

As her disease progressed, he learned how to feed her, to bathe her, to fill up the empty hours of silence with chatter of his own. 

Company stopped coming years ago after Marjorie’s Alzheimer’s left her unable to speak or to walk, leaving the couple alone in their little house in Albert Lea save for the immediate family members who came by. 

For son Craig, seeing his mother’s condition degenerate to silence was perhaps the hardest part of dealing with a disease that he has known all along would eventually take her away. “Just watching her struggle and lose her ability to carry on a conversation was hard,” he said. “She was very talkative but gradually she wouldn’t talk because she was afraid she would forget what she was saying. To see someone who loved to be part of the conversation be left out of it — that whole process was incredibly sad.”

Craig lives in Winona and with his family was part of the Honorary Family for the Alzheimer’s Memory Walk near the end of September. He has been involved for years in the cause, raising money and awareness in honor of his mother who is slowly disappearing before his eyes.

His family knew about 20 years ago that something wasn’t right for Marjorie, and what has ensued since has been like watching death in slow motion, one thought, one freedom at a time. 

In the beginning it wasn’t forgetfulness that sent Marjorie to the doctor, but rather false memories of things that didn’t really happen.

“One Thanksgiving my mother came with perfectly round lefse. She said my niece had called her on the phone and asked for it,” Craig said. “But later my niece told us she had never called my mother. And every time something was missing my mother blamed it on one of my sisters, said she had come over and borrowed it and not brought it back. It was difficult for my sister. I was glad I was living way over here,” he said, with a small laugh. 

The situation is not funny, Craig said, but the family has had to cope in many ways, using education, grace and occasionally their senses of humor for a disease that has taken its toll on them. 

An advocate of early testing, Craig said the family knew something wasn’t right but at first wanted to know whether they were dealing with Alzheimer’s or something different.

“We knew her memory and her version of reality were in trouble,” he said. “She was trying to fill in the gaps for things she couldn’t remember.”

The fact that Marjorie’s mother died from Alzheimer’s and later so did her sister was not encouraging, and doctors were quickly able to confirm the worst. 

The disease has almost run its course ravaging Marjorie’s brain. She is having difficulty swallowing and meals stretch on for hours. Palmer patiently feeds her, but he knows when she can no longer swallow he will watch the love of his life starve to death. It is part of her living will that no extreme measures be used to keep her alive, and it is a request he will painfully honor. 

The most unfair aspect of that, Palmer says, is that her body is perfectly healthy, her blood pressure is good and her heart works just fine. The only things failing are the things the brain must send out directions for. 

Craig and his four siblings have tried to help their parents during these difficult days. A brother moved into their home to help Palmer, and sisters who live nearby visit often. 

When he visits even now, Craig said, he talks to his mother on the assumption that somewhere inside is a woman who understands what he is saying. He massages her hands and tells her about his day.

“I’m hoping that something connects,” he said, “but I don’t know if she knows what I’m saying.”

Family members pay attention for clues, facial expressions, anything that suggests a glimmer of the woman inside, but those signs have largely faded away these days. 

Even so, Craig wishes more people would come to visit her, because Alzheimer’s has been a lonely disease for his parents. “After she couldn’t make it to church any more the people that came by were fewer and fewer,” he said, choking with emotion.

“If you have a friend or a neighbor, you have to not forget about them. Part of it isn’t for the person who is sick, it’s for the caregiver.”

In 20 years, Craig said, his father has spent one night away from home for a funeral out of town. All he does, day and night, is take care of his wife, and even with another family member there, it is lonely and exhausting. “He’d love to see people come by to talk to her, even if she can’t talk back. And maybe they could talk to him too,” Craig said. 

But Palmer isn’t complaining. He loves his wife and he will do this for her as long as she needs him to.  At 89, he explained, most of his friends are dead anyway. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have her,” he said. 

While she is about the only friend he has left, their relationship has changed over the years.  “I used to have to depend on her to remember things, she kept me on schedule,” he said. “But then I had to be the one to remember everything. Mostly I remember what she and I did before. I’ve got to remember that.”