Someone I Knew

As Alzheimer's disease slowly steals the spirit of the man she married, a wife feels the full weight of her vow to love 'in sickness and in health.'

July 28, 2002|By Peter Jensen | By Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. -- Exhausted, her arthritic knees throbbing, Barbara Bussler is ready to collapse. Some family vacation at the beach. While other huddle around the living room TV, she slips into bed.

Minutes later, she hears her 68-year-old husband quietly shuffle into the room. He bends down and tenderly kisses her on the cheek -- an unusual gesture for a man not normally given to displays of affection.

"You didn't have a good day today, did you, Rowland?" She whispers.

"No."

She asks why.

"I couldn't remember anything," he confesses. "Tomorrow will be better."

But Barbara knows tomorrow will not be better. It will be much the same, perhaps even worse.

He'll remember nothing of this conversation anymore than he'll remember where they keep the cereal bowls or when he needs to change his shirt.

Rowland has Alzheimer's Disease and, cell by cell, it's slowly destroying his brain. Memo-ries, the ability to perform routine tasks, to speak, to make judgments, to act appropriately in front of others -- all these things are gradually being lost.

But there is a mercy here. When he was first diagnosed three years ago, he denied it, raged against it, sank into a pit of depression and despair. Today, that pain is gone -- he often forgets that he forgets. He is oblivious to his own misfortune.

Not so for Barbara or the rest of the family. Their suffering has only gotten worse. And it's testing their limits of endurance, of family loyalty, of love and responsibility.

"This is torturing my mother. That's the worst part," says Paula Morris, the Busslers' youngest child, a 34-year-old mother of two. "Mom is high strung and emotional already. To pick up the phone and hear her bawling kills you. She's taking care of everyone -- still."

Caregivers stressed

Nationwide, an estimated 4 million Americans have Alzhei-mer's, about 10 percent of everyone age 65 and older. But by mid-century, that number is expected to rise to 16 million.

Studies show that about 75 percent of those afflicted with the disease live at home and are cared for by a family member, usually a spouse or an adult child. Caregivers like Barbara Bussler of Edgewater are the hidden victims of Alzheimer's -- research shows that they lead more stressful, depressed and potentially shorter lives because of their burden.

"They become isolated, stuck at home with the patient, and the rest of the family often doesn't understand," says Mary S. Mittelman, a researcher at New York University who has studied the lives of Alzheimer's caregivers. "The illness goes on and on and you end up wondering why you're caring for them. They don't seem to appreciate it anymore."

Barbara, 65, noticed something was wrong well before Rowland's diagnosis in 1999. He seemed to forget the simplest things. He got lost while delivering dry cleaning -- and wound up losing his part-time job.

But even family members weren't so sure anything was amiss. Rowland had always been withdrawn and taciturn by nature -- in contrast to his more bubbly and talkative wife -- but they couldn't see what Barbara lived with every day.

"It was overwhelming," she says. "I thought I was going crazy."

These days, the burden of caring for Rowland weighs more heavily than ever. Left on his own, she's certain he would just sit in the living room La-Z-Boy and stare blankly at the television set. For him to do much of anything else requires her explicit orders -- from eating to dressing to taking each of his eight prescription medications.

The instructions usually have to be repeated many times, and Rowland doesn't always care for the nagging and will tell her so.

"I get on his nerves," she admits.

It's a far cry from the Rowland Bussler she married, a handsome, handy, car-crazy high school kid from Suitland in Prince George's County. On their first date, he told her he was never getting married, but he broke his word on a freezing cold day, Jan. 29, 1955.

Rowland took a job managing a tire company and the couple raised three children in nearby Camp Springs. They moved to Edgewater 13 years ago when Rowland's health faltered from heart disease. Life slowed, but they saw a pleasant retirement on the horizon -- until the Alzheimer's.

"At first I was angry, shocked. I didn't want to believe it," she says. "It wasn't fair. It was overwhelming. I'd go in my bedroom and cry."

The last three years have been filled with mini-crises, such as the time she had to tell her husband he couldn't drive his beloved truck anymore. Or when he tried to fix a faucet leak and she came home to discover he had nearly flooded the house.

Rowland, after all, has been the consummate handyman, able to fix anything around the house. He'd spent a career working with things mechanical, selling tires, fixing cars, but those skills deserted him -- and Barbara could do nothing to help him.

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