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Lifetime of love endures through Alzheimer's

Betty Gilchrist smiles as her husband, Cliff, plays "You Are My Sunshine" on the accordion. Cliff suffers from Alzheimer's disease, but the couple can still share the affection that carried them through 63 years of marriage. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Cliff Gilchrist has lost much to Alzheimer's disease, but not the loving relationship with Betty, his wife of 63 years.

"Good morning, sweetheart," Betty greeted Cliff Friday at his home at Havenwood Care Center.

"What's the good news?" Cliff responded.

Cliff was having a sleepy day, and stumbled when he tried to recite a poem. But he managed to play "You Are My Sunshine" on his accordion and then noodle around on the chord buttons.

"You're my sunshine," he said to Betty.

Betty said until recently, Cliff would call her on the phone and say, "I love you, and I always will."

But as he gazed into Betty's eyes Friday after their kiss goodbye, the expressions of love went without saying.

"It's always different with him," Betty said later. "Sometimes he doesn't wake up. Yesterday he was more alert. You just don't know from day to day."

Coping with Cliff's dementia is probably the hardest thing they have faced in their long lives together, but Betty emphasized that people in their situation don't have to suffer alone. She said Cliff went through a short-tempered period earlier on, but is now calm and accepting of his condition. A great help to her is the Alzheimer's Support Group that meets at 1 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at Neilson Place. She said the first time she attended, she cried continuously as she let go of the stress of facing her husband's illness. Now, she is able to help other people coping with a family member with Alzheimer's. That ability to reach out to others, she said, was a real turning point for her.

Betty said she first saw Cliff when she was 15 years old and he, a logger, was buying stumpage from her father off her family farm near Pequot Lakes.

"I was so shy - he'd come in to pay Dad for the timber, and I'd hide behind the chimney corner," she recalled.

But from that first glimpse, she said she decided he was the man for her.

"I knew," she said.

They were married on May 11, 1946, when Betty was 17 and Cliff was 26.

Cliff farmed, then turned exclusively to logging, working well into his 80s. Betty graduated from Bemidji State University and taught school and served as a teacher's aide in the Bemidji School District for 26 years. They raised two daughters, Judy and Joyce.

"Who's Joyce?" Cliff asked Friday when the name came up in conversation.

"Joyce is our daughter," Betty answered. "Joycey."

Betty said she began to notice little lapses in Cliff's memory and behavior about five years ago. For example, at home he would sometimes park in a spot where she would have to drive around his vehicle. And on their 60th anniversary, she couldn't find her camera. For some reason, he had put it in the woodshed and didn't remember where it was or why he put it there. And up to the winter of 2008, Cliff always knew how much firewood they needed to heat their house.

"We never ran out of wood," Betty said.

But that winter, they did, or Cliff would forget to bring in wood to fill the firebox at night.

They moved from their country home near Solway to an apartment in Bemidji in February 2008, and Cliff moved into assisted living in October 2008. Betty now lives in Baker Park Apartments and Cliff at Havenwood.

"You go through so many emotions," she said, although she said she has been laughing more lately with friends and is returning to her artwork.

"There are still tears, but not as many as there used to be," Betty said. "Sometimes a song will set me off."

She said she heard Neil Diamond's "You Don't Send Me Flowers Anymore," and the tears flowed because Cliff used to send her flowers, but can't any longer.

Some days, Cliff will call her by name, some days not. But he is always glad to see her.

"He always seems to know - on some level, he knows who I am," Betty said.