High school sweethearts Tony and Kori Gonzales, married 25 years, are facing Tony’s 2021 diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) together. “I choose to look at the rainbows and not the storms,” Tony says, “and live each day to the fullest.” They share their story during National Alzheimer's Awareness and Family Caregivers Month.
A life-long resident of California, Tony enjoyed a 25-year career in radio broadcasting, known to his listeners as “Chief.” Today, he calls wife Kori, his care partner, the new “Chief of Staff.”
Kori: I’m a planner. I was a special education teacher, very structured. When we received Tony's diagnosis, the world was flipped upside down; nothing made sense.
You can either become bitter and ask “Why us? Why me?” or you can lean on your strengths, and your faith. Therapy has worked wonders for me, once I made the decision that Tony’s diagnosis is not going to define us. I did a lot of self reflection and journaling — I was tired of worrying. I realized that I just had to say YES. Life is too short, and you have to take advantage of every day.
In fact, this is our year of YES. We are saying YES to anything that helps us and our family. This has given me a lot more freedom to take care of both of us.
Tony: We’ve found that attitude changes everything. This year of YES was all about facing this disease together. Kori knew we had to take advantage of the opportunities: she pushed me to exercise, to start podcasting about my experiences, to color and draw and be creative.
She loves to say “We are going to make margaritas out of lemons.” The first time I heard that, I said, “Isn't it lemonade?” She said,” No, we are making margaritas. We are making the very best out of this.”
A few years ago, Tony noticed that juggling his work responsibilities was becoming increasingly difficult. At the time, the family was preparing for his son’s wedding, so Tony attributed his forgetfulness to stress.
Kori: Tony shared his concerns with his primary care physician, who gave him a simple memory test, and when he failed, the doctor referred him to a neurologist. Following an eight-hour neuropsychological evaluation, MRI and lumbar puncture (which didn’t reveal biomarkers for Alzheimer’s), doctors attributed his cognitive issues to sleep apnea.
At the time, Tony was severely overweight, prompting him to seek gastric bypass. Tony lost 165 pounds and completely changed his diet and exercise regimen. Still, his cognition issues persisted. Later that year, Tony got lost driving home from work.
Tony: I’d driven this route a gazillion times. But suddenly I had no idea where I was, where I had been or where I was going. I needed to call Kori for help.
Following additional testing and evaluation, after two years, Tony was diagnosed with MCI. While Tony was relieved that doctors were “finally seeing what I was feeling,” the reality hit Tony hard.
Tony: I cried a lot initially. I had witnessed dementia in some of my older family members and knew the difficult road that lay ahead. It was unfathomable that I would need to leave my job; my life would be changing drastically. That was when I connected with the Alzheimer’s Association and joined an early-stage support group.
This disease picked on the wrong person. After a moment of self-pity, I decided to fight back. Dementia is a horrible thing and I wish I didn’t have it, but it has provided an opportunity to use my voice to make a difference.
Kori: Both of my grandmothers and one of Tony’s passed from dementia or Alzheimer’s, and our kids spent enough time with them to know that this disease is not pretty. It can be very scary, very hard. The fear of losing their dad day by day was and is the hard part for all of us.
That is why we have to fight for new treatments, and ultimately, a cure. We are trying to save the lives of our kids and grandchild. Today, we focus on the here and now and enjoy the birthdays, holidays and special moments, because none of us are promised tomorrow.
As a member of the 2022-2023 National Early-Stage Advisory Group, Tony wants to educate others about the importance of early detection and diagnosis, especially those in the Hispanic community. Kori supports him every step of the way.
Tony: Kori has come to my support group, and my group hears me talk about her. She is present in every moment of my life. The support group is a chance for me to share the things we are going through as a married couple, and I think that has helped other members of the group as well.
The mornings are different from afternoons, and we have had to find ways to talk about things like being intimate, the future, our finances. After every support group meeting, Kori and I will spend time talking about what I learned. If I don't feel like talking, she is patient with me, and we will always talk about it later.
Kori cannot be described in one word. She is caring, thoughtful, energetic, smart, funny and empathetic. She is also a protector. She will put her body in front of them to protect them, especially children. Everything she does comes from her heart; she is so full of love.
The hard part of this journey has been understanding the human soul. Some of our friends and family have moved on from us, but she has made the same commitment to me as I did to her. She is loyal to the end, and her daily actions speak for themselves. Everything she does for me is as amazing as she is. I am very vocal with “I love yous” and make sure she knows that she is the hottest grandmother I have ever seen in my life. I love her more every day.
Kori: My love language is different from Tony’s. Sometimes I have a hard time with my words, and our experience with MCI has made us both better communicators. It has required me to say the things in my heart that you don't always say. It is not my natural inclination. I am the behind-the-scenes introvert compared with Tony, and this year of YES has pulled me out of my shyness. Necessity requires change for us all.
The couple is also learning how to travel after Tony’s MCI diagnosis, using the year of "YES" to take day trips, go camping, and visit places like Bozeman, Montana. They also traveled to Chicago — where Tony was thrilled to have a Chicago hot dog! — San Diego, and Las Vegas.
Kori: One of the difficulties of traveling is that Tony can get disoriented, so before we leave, I prepare him for the trip. I let him know about the noises he may hear, the smells he may smell, the number of people that may be around. We look up the hotel, the lobby, the room reviews, the pools and get a sense of what everything will look like.
Tony: We are being given a gift. We are all aging, we are all getting older, and we need to take advantage of today. Kori and I talk to each other about our feelings, and if I am anxious or elevated, we return to a conversation later when I am feeling better. Those conversations have been monumental for us.
Although Tony and Kori both had dementia or Alzheimer's in their family, there is a lot they wish they had known prior to Tony’s diagnosis.
Kori: As an educator, I wanted to learn everything about this disease, so I did a lot of reading about the disease and healthy ways to live a full life. When Tony received his diagnosis, I was a Type 2 diabetic with hypertension issues, overweight and anxious. I realized I needed to get healthier. I looked into the Mediterranean Diet, which helped immensely, along with other lifestyle changes; a gastric bypass surgery of my own put my diabetes into remission.
When you are given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or other dementia, there is no current way to stop the disease in its tracks. We don't have that toolset just yet, so all I have control over as a care partner is what I can do in my house, for my husband, and for my family.
Tony: Kori looked at me and told me, frankly, that she couldn’t fix my brain or what others think about me. But there are things we can control together. When you get knocked down, it’s not about the fall — it's how you get back up. This disease turned my wife into my champion, a warrior.
Kori: I want other families to know about the things you can have some control over. You can change your diet. You can help educate your family about the disease and behaviors. What I would have given to have known all I know now to help my grandmothers and their quality of life. Make good choices, and know that sometimes the smallest things can make a difference in the long term. I look at it like a piggy bank. You put a penny in and then you start to see the payoff.
Tony: We live for today, and want to leave this world a better place. How can we care for our family with the love and legacy they deserve? Right now, things are working, and as things progress, we will figure it out as we go. Communication is key. We know that not everyone has a spouse they can talk to, but there is help out there.
We live the example of a husband and wife and community members. If we don't do this, shame on us for not setting an example for our children. We don’t fall back into unhealthy habits, and we have so much fun with all the energy we have now.
Kori and Tony thank all care partners and caregivers for what they do each and every day.
Tony: Caregivers and care partners: Have patience, educate yourself and lead with love in everything you do. I lean on Kori, and she leans on me. We are a team.
Kori: Know that your loved one deserves dignity and always keep that in the forefront. Take moments for yourself, and know that anger does not serve a purpose within itself. It needs to be used as fuel to give care and love. It can be a healthy thing to propel you through this disease, because anger around a diagnosis is natural. Your person did not choose this.
We may have lost the lottery but we have also gained so much through this experience.
Tony: My diagnosis has given me a new love for life and a chance to reevaluate what’s really important. I give more hugs now, say ‘I love you’ to more people, and appreciate every moment.
Kori is my end-all be-all. But most importantly, she makes me a better man. Who knows who I would have been if I didn't have her in my life. I thank God for bringing her to me when I was just 17 years old. I have had a great life because of her. She makes it special every day, again and again and again.
About: Since his diagnosis, Tony and his wife Kori have launched a video series, “The Empty Nesters,” documenting their adventures together. Tony also participates in a podcast, “Chief’s Country Classics,” featuring stories from some of country music’s biggest stars. He wants to encourage those living with MCI, Alzheimer’s and dementia to embrace each day.
Tony and Kori live in Santa Maria, California. They have two adult children, Trey and Molina, a daughter-in-law, Maddie, and a grandson named Sandy.
The Alzheimer's Association National Early-Stage Advisory Group
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