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Glen Campbell's wife Kim talks Alzheimer's on a visit to Largo

In this July 27, 2011 photo, musician Glen Campbell poses for a portrait with his wife Kim in Malibu, Calif. Campbell, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, is planning a farewell tour before retiring from the music. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Published Mar. 8, 2016

Anyone who attended a Glen Campbell concert during his 2012 farewell tour won't forget the emotional power of watching a legend wrestling with Alzheimer's disease, missing cues and lyrics yet playing guitar as well as ever.

These days, even Campbell's muscle memory has failed him.

"Sadly, if you live long enough into this disease you even lose that," Kim Campbell said Monday while visiting the Palms of Largo, a senior living and memory care community. "He cannot play guitar anymore. I don't even know if he knows what it's for.

"But our children come and play for him. It's hard to tell if he's responding to it much. Sometimes he'll listen and sometimes he's distracted. He's in his own world right now."

Campbell's visit was part of her collaboration with The Goodman Group, touring several of the health care company's 33 locations nationwide with the Oscar nominated documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, chronicling his Alzheimer's decline.

One of the most popular recording stars ever, Glen Campbell is presently living in a memory care community in Nashville. The Grammy winning performer of such classics as Rhinestone Cowboy, By the Time I Get to Phoenix and Gentle on My Mind moved back there last November, after a short-lived attempt at homebound care.

"We've entered the later stages of the illness," Kim Campbell said. "Some people can remain at home but everybody eventually needs 24/7 care.

"Glen's getting great care, he's happy, he's cheerful. He's healthy but he has lost most of his language skills. He doesn't understand anything anyone is saying to him.

"But there's life and energy and community. He's there with other people — doctors, lawyers — who are all facing the same thing. I'm in a community with other family members who are going through the same thing."

Coincidentally, Campbell visited Largo a day after former First Lady Nancy Reagan died at age 94. Tributes to Mrs. Reagan invariably noted her unwavering concern for former President Ronald Reagan after his Alzheimer's diagnosis.

"She did a lot to protect her husband's legacy and his dignity," Kim Campbell said. "For a lot of people in the past, going into seclusion was what they did. I totally respect that. In their situation that was the right thing to do.

"Glen is one of the first people who came out and lived with dementia before the public. It was his choice to do it. He was, I think, really brave. Now we've reached that stage where I am trying to protect his dignity."

Part of that process is not revealing the name of her husband's memory care community.

"It's hard sometimes for fans to understand," she said. "They still want access to him. We allowed that access for so long but now it's time for him to have privacy and dignity."

Campbell said living with an Alzheimer's patient isn't always dignified. She admits that "depression, the lack of sleep, the burnout" wears on her and family members.

"A lot of people with dementia become combative, like when I bathe him or change his clothes," Campbell said. "Otherwise he's as sweet as can be."

Once when Campbell was dressing her husband, "he gave me a black eye, just punched me right in the eye," she said. "I know he loves me and it's not anything to do with (abuse). It's just that he can't communicate and that's his reflex.

"There are also dangerous things they do, like pick up a knife and not know what it's for. Glen would put a straw hat on top of a lamp and I'd find it just as hot as it could be, ready to start a fire.

"Another time Glen stood on top of a glass tea cart, trying to climb through a kitchen window. He could've gone right through that (glass top) and cut his legs to pieces. And it was on wheels."

After 34 years of marriage, the Campbells are separated by cruel fate yet bonded spiritually.

"Faith has always been the central part of our relationship," she said. "I'm so pleased that as Glen has entered the later stages of this illness, it's evident that he has retained his awareness of God.

"There have been times when he'd walk over to a window and look at the beautiful trees outside, and he'd just raise his hands and say, 'Thank you, heavenly father.' He could barely speak at all but he could come up with, 'We're so blessed,' or 'Thank you, heavenly father.' That really comforts me to know that he has that sense of God's presence in his life, that he's not alone, even if I'm not right next to him."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 89308365. Follow @StevePersall.

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