Last night I watched the 60 Minutes special about Mike and Carol Daly and their twelve-year battle with Carol’s Alzheimer’s disease that has eaten up the last years of their 53 year marriage. Dr. Jon LaPook has been journeying with them for the past ten years of that journey, beginning to interview the couple in 2008. You can watch it here.
While the physical and mental toll of the disease on Carol is evident in each segment, her husband’s physical and emotional deterioration was equally heartbreaking. As Carol struggles to recall her age and recounts the loss of her ability to make even a simple meatloaf, Mike’s undiminished love for this woman shines in his eyes. This is the woman he married, who has cooked and cleaned and taken care of him for over half a century. He won’t give up on her after all she has done for him. It would be unthinkable. “When we took our oath, it was for better or for worse. This is what I signed up for in the beginning.”
Years later, he admits that when he said those words to the journalist, she had only recently been diagnosed. The woman he loved was still there; now, ten years later, that woman is gone. And yet he stays, supported by home health workers and watching their life’s savings dwindle away to nothing. “I’m dying,” he says. And so it seems.
Watching this couple face such devastation so bravely, it occurs to me that there are worse things than death. Surely watching the love of your life diminish, leaving you the caretaker of a lifetime of memories as you face years of tending to the shell of the person he or she once was, falls in that category. And when the person who has the disease is the one who, like Carol, did most of the caretaking up to that point, the future looks especially bleak. Mike was once a New York City police officer … but this, this is infinitely harder. Ten days after their 53rd anniversary, he puts Carol in a nursing home — for her own safety, and because after twelve years, he realizes he has reached the end of what he can do. No doubt if Carol were aware of what her beloved husband was facing, she would have tried to ease his burden. But now it is too late.
Watching the program, I am grateful that Mom and I can still have conversations about things that matter. Moving her here from Georgia meant that the social and spiritual ties she enjoyed have been greatly diminished — she stays in touch with family and friends through a private Facebook page, where I post pictures and stories and they share their comings and going. She and her friends regularly exchange cards and notes and the occasional phone call. I tried taking her to a Baptist church here in town, but she insists she likes going with us to our church. We are trying, as best we can, to care for each other.
But Carol Daly is a grim reminder of what is ahead. The day will likely arrive when Mom will not remember who I am, or who she is. Now she can still dress herself and shower herself with minimal assistance; that won’t always be true, either. And she and my father have already seen the worst of it: the implosion of a marriage that lasted half a century. All that remains is duty and deeply cutting shards of memory. In some ways, it will be a severe mercy when those are gone.
My mother watched her father decline in a veteran’s hospital from Alzheimer’s; he was murdered in his bed by a roommate who smothered him in an effort to stop the snoring. Now it’s Mom’s turn, though I am praying that she will die here, with us. And one day … I have already let Craig know that I don’t expect him to be a superhero. “If this happens to me…” I tell Craig. Find a safe place for me. Then get on with your life. I don’t know if he’ll listen — Craig reminds me a lot of Mike Daly, to be perfectly honest. But at least we’ve had the conversation. At least he knows.
Thanks, Mike and Carol, for sharing your story — and for giving other couples a chance to benefit from your story. And for showing what love looks like when in its hardest, purest form.