By Vanessa Curry | Courtesy photos by Vanessa Curry
Gary Gilmore proposed to his wife Mary twice in 56 years. She accepted both times, but under quite different circumstances. His first proposal came within months after they met as college students living in New York.
Their marriage began a life consumed by professional careers, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and most of all, a profound love for each other. His second proposal came this past June as a sudden inspiration, a spark amid the emptiness Alzheimer’s disease left after erasing part of his memory.
But the gleam in his eyes still reveals his love for Mary, an Italian nurse who believes God saved her from cancer more than a half century ago “because I was meant to take care of Gary.”
Losing routine cognitive functions is a cruel irony for Gary, a Korean War veteran who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, a master’s degree in counseling and a law degree. He taught math and worked as a high school guidance counselor during his long career.
After his retirement, the couple moved to Tyler in 1998, but he continued his passion for learning — taking various classes at Tyler Junior College and designing their new home, Mary says.
Then in 2003, Gary realized his memory was slipping and he went to M.D. Anderson Hospital for a full evaluation.
“He was very aware of it (memory loss) and he wanted to prevent himself from getting worse,” Mary says. “He was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.”
But his ability to recall events, places and people gradually got worse. She couldn’t let him drive anymore for fear he would get lost.
She said his dementia rapidly worsened after he had back surgery in 2010, but it wasn’t until a year ago that his condition was finally diagnosed as being Alzheimer’s. It is here the Gilmore’s story begins to focus more on Mary, who faced day-to-day challenges in caring for her husband.
“He was very … extremely dependent on me,” Mary says. Despite her training as a nurse, the pressure of such a responsibility began to take its toll.
Researchers say the disease affects one in 10 people over the age of 65. It begins in the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are born. Two protein fragments called plaques and tangles accumulate and kill brain cells.
The disease gradually spreads through the brain — referred to as stages — affecting language, logical thought, emotions, older memories, balance and coordination and finally the part of the brain that regulates the heart and breathing, causing death.
The entire progression takes an average of eight to 10 years, and there is no known cure, researchers say. Because people with Alzheimer’s require constant attention, a family caregiver can find their personal time and finances strained.
Mary believes there is a reason for everything, even for her husband’s disease.
“He’s a blessing to me. I really believe that in my heart because (of Gary’s condition) I know there is a God who helps me through this,” she says.
Mary also found help in Tyler from businesses like Inspirations of Tyler and organizations dedicated to assisting those with Alzheimer’s and other mental diseases as well as those who care for them.
Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County is one of those organizations.
For Gary, the Alliance provides Wonderful Wednesday Club — a day where people with Alzheimer’s can participate in various supervised programs while giving their caregivers an opportunity to run errands, shop or just have some time alone.
The organization also offers a plethora of resources for caregivers.
For Mary, that meant help securing a $1,200 grant to pay for six weeks of respite care, an expense difficult to afford on funds from teacher’s retirement and Social Security.
“They (Alzheimer’s Alliance) are there anytime I need something,” Mary says. “They are 100 percent behind the family. They just care about you.”
Alzheimer’s Alliance — located at 211 Winchester Drive in Tyler — has roots dating to 1982, when a single support group was created in Tyler to help families struggling with the disease.
The group grew into the Northeast Texas Chapter of Alzheimer’s Association (in affiliation with the national Alzheimer’s Association) that served Smith and a number of other counties from 1990 to 2002.
The local chapter’s governing board chose to disaffiliate with the national association in 2002, but continued serving a 16-county area until limited resources forced the organization to focus its efforts on Smith County beginning in 2009.
Executive Director Jana Humphrey began working for the Alzheimer’s Alliance in 2004 and now works with a staff of eight full or part-time employees and about 150 volunteers.
The alliance operates as a true non-profit organization, with funding provided by private families, foundations and the generosity of others, Ms. Humphrey says.
She says Alzheimer’s generates some unique challenges for both the person with the disease and those who care for them.
“It affects activities of daily life that we all take for granted,” Ms. Humphrey says. “It can be become very difficult for the caregiver, especially because the behavior (of the person with Alzheimer’s) becomes unpredictable.”
One of the first things alliance workers can do is help the caregiver create an action plan. The plans should include family, friends, physicians, dentists and anyone else who will have contact with the Alzheimer’s victim, she says.
“Caring for the caregiver is our priority. We believe that if we educate and empower caregivers, they will benefit as will the care recipient,” Ms. Humphrey says. In order to maintain that goal, the alliance works to be a major information source for caregivers.
“We try to stay on top of all the resources in the community for possible referrals,” she says. “If we don’t have an answer, we try hard to find one.” The alliance provides community workshops focusing on educating caregivers, family members, and in-home care professionals.
“We help people develop that “knack” . . . tools that will help them better communicate the needs,” she says.
For example, a workshop may focus on how to avoid “incidents” that cause anxiety, stress or fear for the person with Alzheimer’s.
“If they (caregiver) know how to divert or avoid that situation . . . that’s better for everyone involved,” she says.
The workshops also may involve community education, in-service training for professionals, social work consultations and memory screenings (conducted yearly in November). Its program, Project Livesaver, addresses those at risk of wandering.
The alliance also provides caregiver support through counseling, educational resources or support groups because caring for a person with Alzheimer’s can be very difficult and requires a lot of patience, she says.
“We give them permission to make mistakes in order to learn. We need to empower them so they feel good about what they are doing,” Ms. Humphrey says. “Learning also means knowing when to let go of things that used to seem so important.”
As for resources, the alliance offers a library, videos and referrals to a variety of businesses that offer products or services they may need such as legal or financial counseling.
The alliance also works with other organization (such as the Area Agency on Aging of East Texas) in providing respite care for caregivers. The Alliance offers Wonderful Wednesday’s for four hours of respite care at Shiloh Road Church of Christ.
Living with Alzheimer’s
Gary and Mary Gilmore take their new life together in strides, in some ways learning about each other all over again.
“He can color in a book now. He’s starting to read,” Mary says. “You just grasp onto little achievements now.”
He can’t remember his daughter’s name or the name of the family dog, but someone he never seems to forget is the woman he lives with.
This past June, Gary offered this proposal to Mary: “Would you marry me?”
Mary arranged for their priest to bless the couple on their 56th anniversary. Instead, he performed an entire marriage ceremony during church service.
A photograph of Gary’s beaming smile reflected his love.
Asked how he met his wife, Gary turned and gazed into Mary’s eyes.
“I met you in school,” Gary says. “I saw you and I thought: oooooh-yes, absolutely. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” Mary replied.