Abbey Sutherland, brother Robbie and father Rob lost their mom and wife, Rhonda, to Alzheimer’s disease in December 2022. Here, they share their story and a note to Rhonda.
Rhonda Sutherland was a force whose vibrant personality shone in a room full of people, whether she was working her magic in the kitchen or hosting an annual obstacle course for her students as a physical education and health instructor at St. Joseph’s Parish School. After being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2013, Rhonda retired prematurely, which was difficult for everyone affected. "My initial reaction was 'You're only 56,'" says husband Rob. "The news that it was Alzheimer's was shocking."
Several years prior to her diagnosis, Rob noticed that his wife was experiencing problems with time management and repetition. In the summer of 2012, Rhonda and Rob sought medical consultation that led to her diagnosis.
So many lives were altered by this news, especially the lives of Rob and daughter Abbey, who was a collegiate volleyball coach at Division I school in Southern Mississippi at the time of Rhonda’s diagnosis. Abbey gave up her job and relocated to Wisconsin to be closer to her mom. She found a new head coaching position at UW-Stevens Point.
This is where she started the annual "Attacking Alz" volleyball match, which has followed her to UW-Green Bay, where she is now in her sixth season as women's head volleyball coach. As a result of Abbey's passion, UW-La Crosse and UW-Stevens Point have established annual volleyball fundraisers to benefit the Alzheimer's Association.
From diagnosis to daily care
After Rhonda’s diagnosis, Rob focused on giving her the best life possible as he juggled her care and his insurance business. "Every situation is different, and there is no playbook when it comes to Alzheimer's," says Rob. “It was always my goal to make Rhonda as comfortable as possible, especially socially," he adds. "She was a proud woman and wanted to do as much as she could for as long as possible, so we helped make that a reality for as long as we could.”
"When I felt strong enough, I talked to my team about my mom and about her disease," Abbey says. "Watching the team made my mom so happy. I thanked them all for bringing joy to our family, and for giving my dad, my biggest cheerleader, the respite time he needed from caregiving to sit on the sidelines and be part of something special."
A NOTE TO MOM
We will all remember you: our college friend, our colleague, our wife, our mom.
We miss your famous chocolate chip cookies, your one-of-a-king sense of humor, your infectious laugh.
We remember the good times, and the hard times when we learned so much more.
Thank you for always being you. We love you.
Abbey and Rob didn’t know the size of the Alzheimer’s community when they began their caregiving journey, but they quickly learned that they were not alone. “It’s difficult for people to hear, but if you haven't been affected by Alzheimer’s yet, you probably will be,” Rob says. “But there is support around every corner if you just look for it. We weren't aware of the generosity of people surrounding us: the meal trains that began so we had dinner on difficult days, the letters we received when Rhonda passed away,” he continues.
“This journey has made me a better person: a better husband, father and friend. You don't know what you can do until you have to, and if you love someone, it can be done. Don’t sell yourself short. You can do it. But you need help. I had a lot of help.”
In 2022, Rhonda was living in a care home, and Rob, Abbey and brother Robbie remained by her side, her dedicated family care team, making huge changes in their lifestyles to continue to be near her. Nearly 10 years after her diagnosis, Rhonda lost her fiercely-fought battle in December 2022.
Remembering our mom the way she was
“When Mom died, people wanted to help,” Abbey says. “Nothing can prepare you for being the child of a parent with Alzheimer’s, and you need support around you to move forward. We speak out because this disease needs more attention, more funding and more people who care. Alzheimer’s is affecting people even younger than my mom, and we want people to know the stark realities of this disease.” Rob believes change can happen through the power of the Alzheimer's community. “I see what has been done for diseases like HIV and I want Alzheimer’s to have the same amount of attention,” he says. “Look at the great strides that can be made when people care. There is more to be done.”
While their experiences have ranged from the comedic to the traumatic, Abbey and Rob always try to focus on the good times, including playing guitar for Rhonda in memory care, seeing glimpses of the woman they knew so well. “In some ways, she was still very much Rhonda,” Rob says. “She couldn’t make conversation with us, but we would play songs and she would still sing along and dance. These moments of joy and light made our world more tolerable at the worst of times.”
Rhonda’s brain was donated to science, and her impact continues in her community. “It was hard for me to remember who my mom was before her disease, but at her memorial, people reminded me of who she was and shared their own memories,” Abbey says. “Those conversations meant so much, and her celebration of life was full of music and reflection.” Rob recalls a song played that was also a favorite to sing along with Rhonda, Thomas Rhett’s “Remember You Young,” which includes the lyrics: “And no matter how much time goes by / And no matter how much we grow up / For worse or for better, from now 'til forever / I'll always remember you young.”
Abbey and Rob want everyone to remember Rhonda before her disease: Rhonda when she was in college; Rhonda playing with Abbey and Robbie when they were little. “Remember the good and everything Rhonda brought to your life,” Rob says. “Remember the funny or silly stories that celebrate who she was. Remember what she was like when you first met. We celebrate Rhonda’s life knowing that she is in a place where she feels no pain.”
: Abbey lives in Green Bay, WI. She is entering her sixth year as the head women’s volleyball coach at Division 1 UW-Green Bay, where she also serves as senior women's administrator. Abbey lives with her husband, Ryan, along with their corgis, Lala and Herman. Rob lives in Green Bay, where he is surrounded by family. He feels especially blessed to live close to his grandkids, Mari, Robert and Max.