Sam Van Why suspected life would get more challenging when his wife, Donna, began showing signs of failing short-term memory eight years ago at age 61. After several years of living in denial, they finally got a doctor’s opinion: neurocognitive disorder, possibly Alzheimer’s, and settled into a new routine.
Sam retired from his career as a college professor in 2017 so he could spend more time at home with his wife. Within a year, she was having difficulty finishing sentences, but they led an active life. They went to dinner with friends several times a month. The Castle Rock Senior Center kept them busy with field trips, hikes, and even off-road driving near Estes Park. And Donna enjoyed Friday Out and About Colorado programs that gave Sam a small break from caregiving. And they loved biking together.
Then COVID-19 arrived.
After the stay-at-home orders were issued, Sam and Donna limited themselves to bike rides or walks in their Castle Rock neighborhood. But worsening heart issues forced Sam to limit his exertion.
“Anywhere you bike in Castle Rock, you’re either going uphill or downhill,” said Sam. “Anytime we’d go uphill, Donna would leave me in the dust on her new eBike.”
The pandemic interferes
Several months into the COVID-19 shutdown, Sam has seen changes in his wife. While she had shown improvement on an Alzheimer’s medication (Namzaric), the pandemic has reversed course for them.
“It’s hard to say what’s causing more regression: being stuck in the house or my heart,” said Sam. “I’m sure it’s a combination.”
Sam is hopeful that medical procedures will address the heart issues that have sidelined their biking since April. The down time hasn’t stopped Sam from participating in a monthly men’s support group offered through the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, as well as another group that meets biweekly in Castle Rock.
“Getting support has been really beneficial,” he said. “When you’re feeling burned out, it helps pump you up some, and gives you a better idea of what to look for in the future.”
Both Donna and Sam have also enjoyed participating in the weekly virtual Memory Café’ sponsored by the Denver Public Library. In addition, they have signed up for Alzheimer’s Association Spark! programs offered through the Lone Tree Arts Center.
The meetings have gone virtual out of necessity during the coronavirus pandemic, but Sam misses the personal contact. While the couple have occasional visits from one or more of their five daughters, their jobs and young families – and the coronavirus – make the visits infrequent. That makes Sam the primary, and often sole, caregiver for Donna.
No stranger to Alzheimer’s
Unfortunately, Sam has become very familiar with Alzheimer’s disease. He’s seen it far too many times.
“I have had several aunts and uncles on both sides of the family who were diagnosed with dementia,” Sam said. “My mom was, and my brother was too. And then my brother’s wife was diagnosed a short time after him. It’s been very educational for me.”
You might think that the family history would have Sam on edge. But he has other priorities, starting with caring for Donna.
“I’m too busy to deal with Alzheimer’s in myself,” Sam said. When he’s not caring for Donna, he keeps up with developments in his specialty, financial planning. And he’s focused on getting his heart back in working order. The couple has much to do, children and grandchildren to visit. And it’s time to get back on their bikes.
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