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New Horizons

Loving a Family Member with Alzheimer’s

Priscilla King and Joanna Kingsbury

Geraldine Eyres entered Pine Haven Christian Home on December 16, 1995. Three days later she broke her hip. Back from the hospital, Gerry repeatedly begged her husband, retired Orthodox Presbyterian pastor Lawrence Eyres, to take her home. By the time he got home that night, he was in tears. He poured out his heart to God: he didn’t want to let her go, but he surrendered his beloved wife of fifty-seven years to him. “Your will be done!”

Twelve days later, on December 27, 1995, she entered heaven. Technically she died of pneumonia. In reality, Alzheimer’s disease stole first her mind and then her life.

These are the remembrances of her daughter, Priscilla King; her granddaughter, Joanna Kingsbury; and her late husband, Lawrence Eyres, from his memoir, My Pilgrimage. We are sharing our memories in the hope of helping others who are ministering to someone battling Alzheimer’s.

Priscilla: So often did I hear people say, “Your mother is the perfect pastor’s wife!” that I vowed I’d never marry a pastor. The standard was too high. And I didn’t. I married David King, who was going to be a college professor. When David changed course to the pastoral ministry, I heard God laugh and say “Gotcha!” Since then, our daughter Joanna lengthened her name by marrying Matthew Kingsbury, pastor of Park Hill Presbyterian Church in Denver. Joanna remembers her growing-up days in South Dakota, when David pastored our OP church in Hamill, and her grandfather pastored the OP church in Winner, twenty-three miles away.

Joanna: Growing up, my grandparents’ home was a welcome and warm respite from the noisy chaos of life with four siblings. I remember the smell of her hand lotion, the sound of Papa making breakfast on Saturday morning, the tender touch of Mimi’s fingers as she poured warm water from the kitchen sink over my hair in preparation for Saturday night curlers, and the quiet of their well-kept and cozy home. I loved visiting my grandparents. I felt safe.

Mimi was always gentle with us. The thing I liked best about her was her sharp-as-a-tack sense of humor. She could giggle like a schoolgirl at the silliest things.

Priscilla: One of the first signs of dementia occurred in 1990, when my parents moved to Oostburg, Wisconsin. As my father was driving on snow-covered roads, my mother told him that her deceased mother was sitting beside her. He attributed it to stress.

Two years later, while coming home from Maine, my mother refused to believe that she and my father were married. Their motel room had two beds, so he obliged her by sleeping in the other one. In the morning, she was all apologies.

Seeing no marked deterioration over the following year, they returned to Maine. They spent one night with an old friend. But my mother became terrified that their hostess was going to kill them. On their return home, she insisted that they drive all 1,200 miles without stopping. When they stopped for food later, she said, “I can’t marry you.” My father begged her to believe they were married. He told her they had a daughter and some grandchildren. She was horrified. My father thought that once she was at home, she would be all right, but the hallucinations continued. In November, they received the diagnosis: Alzheimer’s.

Joanna: When my grandmother got Alzheimer’s, the spark went away. Her sharp wit withered to nearly total absence. My dear Mimi was gone. Their home still felt safe, but now there was only the body of my grandmother, moving from room to room, her eyes soulless. I no longer felt taken care of.

Papa’s sadness was profound. What a man, my Papa! How he loved his wife! Now his shoulders slumped, and small sighs escaped here and there. He cared for Mimi’s frail and shrinking shell as best he could, but those empty eyes and nonsensical mumblings kept his spirit low.

Priscilla: My father tried to correct my mother’s misapprehensions. When this became counterproductive, I advised him, as a geriatric nurse, to enter her world instead. I told him about the hospitalized dementia patient who was terrified of polar bears. His nurse covered a room freshener with paper that said, “Polar Bear Repellant.” When he became frightened of an attack, she would spray the room and reassure him of safety. My father was visibly relieved.

Lawrence: In her final year, she was in agony—not physically, but emotionally. Frequently Gerry wouldn’t recognize one or another of our family. Sometimes we were able to laugh; at other times, it broke our hearts. If I told her what was wrong with her (which she asked repeatedly), she couldn’t remember even a minute. Her deterioration was rapid. But I enjoyed taking care of her. I bathed her, dressed her, combed her hair, and more. I loved her then, as I love her still. I’m not saying I never lost patience. I did—often!—and then wept because of it.

Priscilla: My mother’s final year was one of intense anxiety. My parents would drive two and a half hours to visit us. In less than five minutes, she was anxious to return home: “Someone is waiting for us. What will they do when they can’t get in?” Once I took her for a short walk from our house, while the others ran an errand. After less than a block, my mother’s anxiety escalated till she was afraid to stay still and afraid to proceed—afraid of what was next to her and afraid of what lay ahead. I had to forcibly propel her toward our house, her terror escalating. I prayed! The family’s quick return was my answer.

When my father led worship services in Sheboygan, someone sat or walked with my mother. One member remembers: “Her prayers in small groups were always appropriate and beautiful, even when casual conversation was difficult, as if the Lord preserved her mind for her words to him.”

Joanna: She slipped closer and closer to an unknown world whose veil was thick and black. But then Papa would read a psalm, and her agitation ceased. She was listening. Or we’d sing a hymn after dinner—was that recognition? Sometimes she’d even smile. To see that was a gift.

The Holy Spirit was not muted by this thieving disease. The body and mind had succumbed to the effects of the fall, but God had conquered—already! At these moments of family worship, the Spirit rose afresh and gave her peace, and she stopped striving to understand or communicate. Mimi was still in there—no longer the “old man,” but the new one in Christ.

Lawrence: (Gerry weighed less than ninety pounds when she entered Pine Haven.) As I stood by her bed where she lay, ready for the night, she began to speak gibberish. Then she began to pray—real prayer, simple and sweet. She knew to whom she spoke, and did so with momentarily clear understanding. When she had finished, she said, “Amen,” and then lapsed into gibberish again.

(Gerry went Home the next day.) To my surprise, I wasn’t overcome with grief. I had been watching my dear wife die by degrees for at least two years. Now she was with the Lord, and I rejoiced that her suffering was over. Second Corinthians 4:16–18 was precious to her, and it is to me more and more:

We do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (NASB)

Priscilla King is a member of Christ Presbyterian Church in Janesville, Wis. Joanna Kingsbury is a member of Park Hill Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colo. New Horizons, January 2015.

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