Profile: Dr. Kirkpatrick writes about his wife's Alzheimer's journey

In his book Neither Married Nor Single Dr. David Kirkpatrick takes the reader through the turmoil, conflict and heartache he experienced as he lost his wife to Alzheimer’s disease.

“If I have been resisting losing her to AD, tonight I am yielding to the poignant nostalgia and the reality of the loss, to the cleaner, sharper edges and boundaries of no longer being with her ever again. Knowing this and accepting it,” he wrote.

SeniorsZen had an opportunity to talk to Dr. Kirkpatrick about his experience and the lessons his book holds.

SZ) Can you tell me a bit about what lead up to the writing of your book?

There is so much written about Alzheimer’s as a family process: looking after mom or dad or is it time to talk about putting Grandma in a home; but there is really next to nothing about the Alzheimer’s marriage.

What lead up to the writing was Clair’s diagnosis. Being a writer, I knew I wanted to write about it. I had written an earlier piece in the Canadian Medical Association Journal called Make Hay While the Sun Shines. It gives a glimpse of Clair at an earlier time, 2005-2007 but she began deteriorating more aggressively after that point. I thought, Nobody has written about what I am facing issues of intimacy, sexuality, relationship changes within the actual marriage. I was part of an Alzheimer’s caregiver support group and the leader tiptoed around these issues there too. Basically, these are tender issues that come from loving and losing. I knew that somebody had to talk about it. So, as a writer, I began writing about it.

The book is not meant so much to reassure but to comfort and teach the reader about these issues.

SZ) What did you find was the most complicated aspect of living with this?

First was looking after Clair when she was at home. I can take care of her too much and annoy her. Or, on occasion I would miss a chance to take care of her.

Later on, the second issue was placement. Is it time to think about putting Clair into a home? She was calling the police to report a stranger in the house, which was me. Finally, one of the Mounties said, ‘Clair you’re going to need to see a doctor right away.’ The next day I took her to the hospital from where she would never come home. She went from Lion’s Gate hospital to Kiwanis Care Centre.

We had people in our group who were determined never to put their partner into care so they weren’t very good listeners. To their credit they had their own approach but, they weren’t comfortable people to share with for those of us who really needed to address the placement issues more fully.

The third area of conflict was issues of resocialization. When do I begin dating? When do I think about beginning to date? When do I talk about thinking about dating? When do I go out? At what point do I think about starting a new relationship? Those are difficult issues especially if you are lonely and no one else around you is talking about it even though they may be dealing with it. I would say about half of our group was experiencing resocialization conflicts but they weren’t talking about it because the group wasn’t made safe to deal with these issues.

SZ) What are some coping skills that you can offer to those in a similar marriage?

Remember, you are not alone. Reach out. Get a support group. Counsellor, if needed. It is okay to get both. Don’t be alone. And don’t argue. Arguing doesn’t help with an Alzheimer’s marriage. It just goes from bad to worse. If you feel like arguing go and talk to your friend, your support group care person or your counsellor or pray, meditate. Be proactive. Do something.

SZ) It really is a different way to say goodbye.

Yes. How do you say goodbye to someone that is still there? So many conflicts. It is not as if you say goodbye in one night or one conversation. It is process of saying goodbye over 6 or 8 or 10 or 12 years. Loving and losing.

When my first wife died of cancer she was sharp until the end: the last 12 hours of her life. So, there was not an emotional goodbye process like with Clair and Alzheimer’s, which occurs over a long, long period of time. One drop of goodbye a day, a week, a month. Not just a goodbye but a temptation to say goodbye and how do you say goodbye a little bit? It is not all or none.

SZ)  What do you hope that people take from your story?

Comfort. Hope. Empowerment. And, awareness that they are not alone. They have power and there are things they can do, experience and respond to within this tragedy that they are not just experiencing but living.

It is not an all or none situation. You don’t just say goodbye and close a chapter in your life. You are part of an ongoing process of loving and losing. Be prepared for that. Be prepared to share. And, remember you are not alone.

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