NADAM 2017
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Irene and Fred Ruekert - An 11 Year Journey
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Fred and Irene Ruekert

Walking to End Alzheimer’s is serious business for the Ruekert family of Waukesha.  In fact, raising funds and awareness to stop this devastating disease, is a mission that began for this family back in 1979 when the family’s patriarch, Frank Ruekert, Sr. passed away from Alzheimer’s.  Eighteen years later, Frank’s oldest son, Frank, Jr. would also succumb to the disease.  This year, on June 30th, the life of Frank’s younger son, Fred, was also extinguished by the cruel disease that first struck his family 37 years earlier.

“This illness consumes you,” said Irene Ruekert, Fred’s wife.  Irene, a registered nurse, not only cared for her father-in-law during the last few years of his life, but also provided in-home care for her husband during his entire 11-year journey with the disease.   She knows Alzheimer’s all too well – and saw suspicious signs that something might be wrong with her husband about 1 ½ years before he was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 53.  “I knew something was wrong, and I knew it was not our relationship,” said Irene.  “He would come home from work frustrated.  I would see black, and he would see white.  I began to think it was me.”

Fred & Irene have six children, and at the time he was diagnosed, daughter Kristin was just 15 and still living at home.  The entire family struggled with the diagnosis. “When I initially told the kids that Fred had Alzheimer’s, they honestly thought that it must be something I was doing wrong,” said Irene.  “You couldn’t blame or hate Fred for being ill, but you could hate Mom for not doing things right.”
But deep in her heart, Kristin eventually knew that something was wrong with her Dad too.  She vividly remembers the day when she and her Mom arranged to meet Fred for lunch at Culvers.  Fred was still working and the time, and drove his own car to the lunch date.  When lunch was over, both women were surprised when Fred hopped into the backseat of their car, expecting a ride back to work.  “I had to remind him that he drove his own car,” said Kristin.  “And just like that, he got into his own car and somehow made it back to work.”  And Fred managed to fool others at work for a while too.  “He was very intelligent,” said Irene, “and he came up with strategies to deal with things.  His office was a sea of yellow post-it notes. He could pull out old information at work, he just was unable to do anything new.”

Irene rapidly figured out that driving would be a problem for Fred, so the family took away the car keys.  But one day, when Fred was at home alone with Kristin, he grabbed the car keys, and navigated to one of his favorite stores, Farm & Fleet.  Kristin located her mother by cell phone, and Irene proceeded to the store.  She found Fred in one of the aisles, shopping, and totally unaware of how he got there.  “He had no idea that he drove himself there,” said Irene.

Over their 11-year journey with the disease, Irene often asked herself, “What is it that is keeping Fred alive longer?” And she now thinks she has that answer.  “We did aggressive and proactive things, as much as we could,” she said.  “We went to the memory care clinic at Froedtert, worked with Dr. Antuono, and enrolled Fred in clinical trials.  I also think that being able to keep Fred at home helped prolong his life.  Having friends and family walk through that front door to visit him made a huge difference for both of us.”  And Irene made sure that Fred wasn’t home bound.  A year before he died, she traveled with him to Texas to visit with son David, and wife Ashley.   And they often visited their cabin in Rice Lake, Wisconsin.  But Irene is the first to admit that she was in a very unique position being a registered nurse, being youthful enough to handle the physicality required, having the skills needed to care for Fred, and also having the financial means to allow for his care.

Now that Fred is gone, life is certainly different for Irene.  “We had the blessing that we were able to say goodbye to Fred for 11 years,” she said.  “I am overwhelmed at this point.  I have to figure out who Irene Ruekert is right now.  For 11 years, I had to figure out how I could leave Fred so that I could run and get a gallon of milk.  Now, I have all the time in the world to do anything I want to.”  Given all that, Irene says without any hesitation, “If I could, I’d take him back in a heartbeat.”

Irene’s not sure what her future will look like.  But she knows for certain that she wants to continue her involvement to End Alzheimer’s.  “There needs to be more awareness of this disease,” she said.  “Right now the general public doesn’t understand what it takes to care for someone with Alzheimer’s.  And as the baby boomers age, we will have more people with this illness.  And we are not set up to properly care for them.  I truly hope at some point I will be able to connect with people and make a difference in their lives.  Then perhaps I can say I saw something productive come from this damn illness.”



 

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