Divorce a spouse with Alzheimer's? Four believe in 'till death do us part'

Francine Shebell says her husband, Peter, used to tell her to divorce him.

He knew that Alzheimer's disease was starting to rob him of his memory. "And he knew enough to realize that it was a lot for me to go through," said Shebell, 68.

But she hasn't left him. "He is my soul mate," she says.

The issue of divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's attracted national attention recently when religious broadcaster Pat Robertson told a listener that doing so is okay because the disease is "a kind of death."

But Robertson hasn't been in Shebell's shoes, or Sandra Lachs', Bob Youngblood's or Susan Smith's.

All four Tampa Bay area residents care for or have cared for a spouse with Alzheimer's disease. Each said they never considered divorcing during the course of the disease.

"I said shame on him," Lachs said of the 700 Club founder's comments.

At the same time, each has done something that Alzheimer's experts say is an important way to help offset the enormous stress involved with being a 24-7 caregiver.

They moved on.

They took classes, did volunteer work, found time to exercise and started to socialize again.

And at some point in the illness, they made the difficult decision to move their loved ones out of their homes to be cared for in assisted living or a nursing home.

"Someone told me my life was over," said Smith, when she learned in 2001 that her husband, Kenneth Albritton, had the disease. "But you can't think that way. You still exist."

• • •

Every day, Bob Youngblood visits a woman who no longer knows he is her husband.

"She recognizes me, but she's not sure who I am," says Youngblood, 67. "She doesn't have a concept of what a husband is."

Yet without fail, he makes the daily 22-mile drive from his Pasco County home to a nursing facility in Brooksville, where he feeds her lunch as she sits in a wheelchair.

Susan Youngblood was 58 when she retired in 2004 as a director for Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Two years later, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Now 65, she no longer speaks in sentences, just words and occasional phrases. If she is in pain, she communicates with facial expressions.

"Susan's world is now very, very small," Youngblood said.

After caring for her at home for the past five years, Youngblood said it became clear in April that he could no longer give her the care she needed. She couldn't dress herself or go to the bathroom on her own.

In June, he moved her to Heron Pointe Health and Rehabilitation, a nursing home in Brooksville.

Youngblood has slowly begun to move on with his life. He plays tennis regularly and takes care of the courts near his home. He volunteers with his neighborhood association and has begun to socialize more at the neighborhood clubhouse.

It's a balance that he says fulfills his responsibilities to his wife, but also himself.

He bristled at Robertson's suggestion that it's okay to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer's and start over, as long as you make sure the person is cared for.

It's not the divorce part that bothers him. "You can get a divorce. People have gotten divorces," Youngblood said. "But (Robertson) implied that you need to start over. That means you're cutting the umbilical cord to that person."

That's something Youngblood, an Air Force veteran, says he would never do.

"Military guys fly missions, make sacrifices. My role is to finish what I started," he said, fighting back tears. "That was the deal. And the other thing is, Susan wouldn't have done that to me."

• • •

Francine Shebell knows she did the right thing when she moved her husband, Peter, 80, into an assisted living facility three months ago.

But she says her decision was second-guessed by friends, and even her husband's grown children.

"Friends would say, 'How can you do this?' and 'It's not the right time,' " Shebell said.

Families often view such a move as a last resort. But the way she saw it, moving him into assisted living when she did gave him the time to adjust before the worst parts of the memory-robbing disease set in.

Over the summer, Shebell found a place for her husband at the Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay before she left on a 10-day trip to Israel to attend her grandson's bar mitzvah.

When she returned, she said she was prepared to take him back to their downtown St. Petersburg condominium if he wanted. But when she saw him at the assisted living facility, she saw a man who was engaged in a way she hadn't seen in years.

"He was happy there," she said. "He had friends. He even had a girlfriend."

Shebell visits her husband — a former law firm senior partner and municipal court judge in New Jersey — several times a week. She has even taken him and his "girlfriend," Judy — another Alzheimer's patient — on outings, including to a Tampa Bay Rays game.

"He shows her affection, holds her hand," Shebell said.

Shebell, meanwhile, makes time for walks with a group of friends, and goes to the gym every day. Her health, which suffered during her years as a caregiver, has started to improve.

But Shebell is still adjusting to life without seeing her husband every day. "I still have his clothes in my closet," she said, wiping away tears. "I'm not over it.

"But when you love someone that much you want them to have something good," she said. "He has dignity. That's the best thing I ever did for him."

• • •

Susan Smith admits that she almost divorced her husband before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The two weren't communicating well, and she didn't understand why.

But then he started having difficulty doing his job as a chemist with the Tampa sewer department and was placed on leave. She also noticed that his math skills had deteriorated and that he was having trouble fitting pipes together in the yard.

Kenneth Albritton was 49 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2001. Smith was 47. They had been married for 26 years.

Once she had the clarity of a diagnosis, she knew then she wouldn't leave him.

"I determined I would take care of him."

During the course of her husband's battle, Smith left her career as a systems engineer with Verizon and cared for him full time at their Temple Terrace home. But she also made time to plan for a new career. She took a class in professional organizing. Later, she took classes to be a certified nursing assistant and began plans to convert the couple's home to an assisted living facility.

She describes her husband's struggle with Alzheimer's as "seven good years and six difficult months."

During the good years, she took him on vacations and other outings.

But in his final months, as the disease worsened quickly, she moved him to an assisted living facility, then a hospital and then hospice. He died on Aug. 7, 2008.

She says she never thought about divorcing him, but if those six difficult months had stretched into years she's not sure what she would have done.

"You really don't know," she says.

After her husband's death, Smith opened her assisted living facility, but months later decided the venture wasn't for her. She went back to school. She went out and met people, including a man she married a year later.

"Things are going well."

• • •

Sandy Lachs cared for her husband, Gerard, at home for five years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2001.

But then came his frequent falls. Lachs, 5 feet tall, could not prop her 6-foot-1 husband back up.

"I had to run around the neighborhood looking for people to help," she says. "It was just impossible."

For his safety, she moved him to a nearby assisted living facility. And Lachs prepared to live her life without him.

She sold the couple's home in Temple Terrace and moved into smaller quarters. "I didn't want to be there by myself," she said.

Lachs thought she would be scared and lonely. "But I was very comfortable living by myself. I felt kind of guilty about that."

Looking back, Lachs admits she was resentful at times when she had to decline invitations from friends to go out when she cared for her husband at home.

"I would feel sorry for myself," she said. "It got to a point where I had no life."

She became a remote caregiver, visiting her husband — a retired engineering professor at the University of South Florida — three times a week, and continuing to track his medications.

But Lachs also rediscovered some of the things she gave up to care for him.

She volunteered with a group called SCORE, helping people interested in starting businesses. She joined social groups to make friends. "I found people who were divorced, widowed and in similar situations to me," she said. "It was very helpful."

Gerard remained in assisted living for five years and died in February.

She was appalled when Robertson described Alzheimer's as "a kind of death."

"Gerry was never dead to me," she said. "Two weeks before he died, I said 'I love you' and he said he loved me."

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

Divorce a spouse with Alzheimer's? Four believe in 'till death do us part' 10/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 15, 2011 2:57pm]

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