`You can't let it hurt'
As disease takes its toll on former minister, his wife of 50 years learns how to copeJanuary 16, 2009 STAFF REPORTER
Ted Simmons may have Alzheimer's disease but, for now, despite confusion about some of life's details, he still grasps the big picture.
"We're going to use as much of our time as we can to do the things we can do, and not try to get the other ones that seem not to be there," says Simmons, 78.
One of the details he fails to grasp, however, is that the many things he can no longer do fall on the sturdy shoulders of Ruth Simmons, his wife of 50 years.
On a cold grey afternoon, Ruth sits silently alongside her husband at the dining table of their attractive Hamilton condo, watching as he shows visitors the pictures he colours with magic markers.
Ted got his diagnosis three years ago, Ruth says. Doctors told her recently he's deteriorating faster than average. Only a year ago, she says, he could operate the condo's door system or call her on her cellphone if she stepped out to the store.
"Bit by bit as he loses an ability (to do things), you just pick it up," she says. "Some of these things a wife just does, laundry, the food shopping – you've done them all your life."
But now she also handles all the finances, and manages the household and his personal care. There's medication to organize, his clothes to lay out, a healthy diet to prepare.
Ruth talks freely about the difficulties she faces as her husband's personality and motor skills crumble. But there's no sense of unspoken resentment. Only the deep grooves on either side of her mouth and the lines of fatigue around her eyes suggest how taxing this new way of life must be.
The couple married in 1958 and raised four children. Ted, a tall, slender, gentle-looking man, served as a minister with the Associated Gospel Churches after they wed, and later worked as a probation officer in Hamilton, retiring after 25 years.
In between, he served a 10-year stint as a school trustee, owned and managed a commercial real-estate property and launched a thriving wedding chapel in 1980, which one of his sons now runs.
Ruth, an ordained minister herself, taught kindergarten for several years before retiring in 1996.
Their married life was busy and rewarding, until everything started to change three years ago when the family began noticing odd lapses in Ted's memory. The once impeccable accountant began making uncharacteristic banking errors. And, sometimes, he got confused when he officiated at weddings.
In December 2005, the family asked for a referral to St. Joseph's Geriatric Assessment clinic. The diagnosis came almost as a relief, Ruth says, because at least it explained his bizarre behaviour.
But soon, she says, the situation overwhelmed her. "I didn't do well at first. In the beginning I was floundering."
She says it took information about the disease and the support of those who know a lot about it to help her cope. She connected with counsellors at the local chapter of the Alzheimer Society.
"The more you learn, the more you realize what's going on and the more you can develop coping skills," she says.
Until July, when his doctor prescribed a drug called Ebixa, Ted had rapid mood swings and bouts of frustration, leading to rage he unleashed on her. Although not physically violent, she says the anger caused him to say abusive, "horrible" things.
"You can hardly believe it," she says. "It's hard to take, even though you know he doesn't know it hurts so much. You have to make up your mind not to let it hurt."
Ruth endures despite profound sadness and grief as she watches her once-intelligent mate happily engaged in colouring books.
"We always talked about things, like the sermons and speeches he used to prepare. Now, it's about what colour to do the snowman."