Alzheimer’s Association Early-Stage Advisor Gary Gibson has been married to his wife Ellen for 44 years. During National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month & National Family Caregivers Month, he celebrates his longtime love.
Ellen and I retired in 2016, taking our 2000 Honda Civic to visit all of our grandkids on a cross-country trip, stopping everywhere from Virginia to California. I have such happy memories of that trip, but it was during this time that Ellen first noticed signs of a change in my cognition. She began taking notes about changes in my behavior, which included short term memory loss.
In 2017, a lot of the tax rules changed, and I was getting really frustrated with the process as Ellen and I did our taxes together. Ellen saw an opportunity to make my best friend aware of the behaviors she was seeing ahead of a trip I had planned with him. Knowing my friend for 40 years, and him being a physician, he suggested seeing a neurologist. After I failed a memory test and couldn't draw the photo I was supposed to sketch, I had an MRI and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the disease that took my mother from me.
My Love Story
I knew Ellen’s family before I knew her. She was living in a different state when I taught a church course with her mother, after which her mother and I became good friends. Soon, I was eating at the Anderson house every Tuesday, and on one of those Tuesdays, Ellen was there. We had a short conversation, and, unbeknownst to me, she was quite taken with me! Knowing I was a bachelor, her mom kicked it up a notch. I was invited again to their house, and Ellen and I began to feel something happening between us.
I had planned a trip to Israel around Christmas and I told Ellen that before we considered dating, I had a question to settle within myself. I had been thinking about becoming a priest, and I needed to explore this before beginning a relationship. Ellen was devastated. She later told me that she took a photo of me and ripped it up and flushed it down the toilet!
While I did enjoy the trip, it was during that time that I realized how important she was to me, and I hoped that she wouldn't slam the door in my face when I returned. She was upset, so I got right to my point. I simply said: “I think I am in love with you. I want to explore this relationship.” She began to cry happy tears.
We were so ready to be committed to each other that we moved the wedding up from April to February. We had 400 people and seven priests at our wedding! The priests I had been talking to at the seminary fully supported my decision and celebrated alongside us and our families. My stepfather pulled me aside at the wedding. Kiddingly, he said: “There are too many witnesses; you're never getting out of this.” All I could say in return was: “Charlie, I am not planning to get out.”
My Care Partner
And here we are. Ellen has my back, and I have hers. She left last year for a four-day trip to Kentucky with her friends, and during that time, I had my schedule: I went to the gym, did the grocery shopping, made social visits with friends. Her having that time to herself is as important to me as it is for her.
We talk openly when we are stressed, tired or need something from one another, which has always been a good strategy for us. You can't NOT talk about Alzheimer’s if it is part of your life. You need someone to guide you, particularly in the early days after a diagnosis. I encourage people struggling with cognitive issues and dementia to make sure their families are part of their lives. You need all the support you can get.
Ellen and I are successful as a duo because we really do love each other. Ellen is a physical education instructor teacher by training. When we retired, she suggested that we start getting back into good shape. Ellen has always seen the value of staying fit, and her encouragement has inspired my daily workouts.
Today, I am a regular gym rat, and go five days a week. The gym practices social distancing and everyone wears masks, and the staff is literally behind each person as they leave a workout machine, ready to clean. Many times, I have the area to myself. And while I know exercise cannot cure Alzheimer’s, keeping a healthy body is high on my list. After I have a good cardio workout, my brain feels clearer, and I feel better overall.
In addition to exercise, support groups have been my lifeline. I connected with the Alzheimer’s Association and began attending support group meetings in Ann Arbor and Chelsea, Michigan. Between technology and my exercise regimen, I continue to live well after my diagnosis. My online calendar is synced with Ellen’s so we can keep our schedule and to-do lists. I use the WAZE app to keep me on track when driving and I have already registered for a bus pass and rideshare services for when I can no longer drive.
With early detection, you can participate in the design of your life going forward. You can live well with support. And I live well because Ellen was the first person to speak up when she saw signs of Alzheimer’s in my daily life.
Ellen is a special person who has made me look at life differently than I would have without her by my side. I come from a very poor upbringing, so I never thought about spending money on things for myself. Ellen will comment on my worn-out shoes. I say to her, “I can make them last.” But she counters, “Why not get some new ones? We have the money.” Basically, she makes sure I am not an old tightwad! I may be the kind of social guy who would answer the doorbell with a smile at 10 p.m, and she may be the one running for the bedroom, yet we have evolved together despite our different temperaments.
Ellen has always been so good with our children; even when we've hit roadblocks, she’s figured out what had to be done. As the oldest of a family of nine, she knows how to care for others. We have always been honest with each other and have given each other permission to talk about the hard stuff. And we always look out for each other.
This has been mutually beneficial. People may struggle with intimacy or have a hard time talking about something that is bothering them, but we get it out in the open so it is never festering beneath the surface. Communication is important, especially after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and it is easier once you start doing it. It has certainly helped our marriage thrive.
To All Care Partners and Caregivers
If I could say one thing to Ellen and other care partners and caregivers, it would be to thank them for their willingness to take on the role they have. Ellen has never once made me feel bad about something I forgot; if I am in a bad mood, she gives me space. She is an exceptional person in that way. I am beyond grateful to have a partner who encourages me to call a friend or go for a walk when I am in a funk, and I try to do the same for her.
Both products of divorce, we did not want to go down that road. So many hearts are broken in that process. We knew, going into our marriage: “If we are going to do this marriage thing, we are going to do it right.” We got counseling when we needed it, we call each other out, we discuss topics that are important in our relationship, and we compromise. We both come to the table knowing that we want to do better together.
A constant refrain in my life has been this: I married the right girl. Ellen captured my heart.
During these times we are living in, through the COVID-19 pandemic, we talked about Ellen’s side of the family, who lost family members in the 1918 pandemic in Boston. I can’t imagine that level of pain her family experienced at that time, and the pain that other families are experiencing today. I am so blessed to have this woman in my life, on this journey, who I love so dearly, so dedicated to me and my well being.
Thank you, Ellen, for being my everything.
About: Gary was born and raised in Massachusetts, the oldest of five children. Gary and wife Ellen enjoy life in a 55+ living community in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
This post was developed based on an interview with Gary Gibson.
Photo 1: Gary and Ellen on their honeymoon in 1976
Photo 2: Gary and Ellen in January 2020 on their first ever cruise in the Caribbean
Photo 3: Gary's family in 2017, at home in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Honor a Caregiver
National Early-Stage Advisory Group