It was a low-key beginning to a courtship that evolved slowly and cautiously; he’d lost his first wife to cancer, and he was still walking with grief. He was raising three boys, and she had a young son.
As the story goes, he fell in love when he saw her singing in the church choir — and their acquaintance slowly progressed into a deep friendship. Three years later, they married. This April, they’ll celebrate their 20th anniversary.
The early years of their marriage presented challenges for Marketta: blending their families and finding her place in the community where he’d lived his whole life. A decade later, a whole new set of challenges emerged: She saw changes in Mike that alarmed her.
Mike, who’d served as superintendent of Russell County, Virginia, Schools and on the county board of supervisors, had always been a highly motivated go-getter who loved numbers and budgeting, she says. But he’d stopped ticking things off his to-do list and even hired someone to do their taxes.
Over time, others began to notice the changes, and at age 64 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The illness forced him to take early retirement, and since being diagnosed he’s slowly lost pieces of himself. For the last three years, Marketta says, he’s needed round-the-clock care.
Mike was the kind of family man who always attended his children’s events and stashed away cards to give his wife; now, he rarely knows who his family members are.
Marketta compares the long, heartbreaking journey to waves breaking on a shore: one tickles your feet, the next shifts the sand beneath you, and the one after it knocks you down.
Mike’s disease has progressed to the point he can no longer hold a conversation or care for himself, but Marketta remains by his side.
“When he was diagnosed, my role in his life became very clear to me then: I knew my role is to be his caregiver,” she says. “It was truly the love of Christ that brought us together for a time such as this.”
In the daily struggles of what’s sometimes a very difficult full-time caregiving role, Marketta says her faith is her guide — that the good times and his enduring kindness help her get through the nights of wandering and the days when he doesn’t know her name.
Their lives are much different than when they first fell in love more than two decades ago, but for Valentine’s Day — the anniversary of the day he proposed 21 years ago — they planned to do what they do every Friday: go out for pizza in Abingdon.
They also still go on dates to Walmart, too, she says: He pushes the buggy for her while she shops for groceries. And, at home, she still sings the song she sang to him at their wedding: “Unforgettable.”
“Even though he’s not the same person he was, we’re still together,” she says. “The thing that keeps us together is our common faith and our relationship with Christ, and that is unconditional love. It’s the kind of love that is enough — it is. And that’s our story.”
Valentine’s Day can be a particularly tough time for couples living with Alzheimer’s as they adjust to dual roles as romantic partners and care partners.
“It is a reminder that love not only brings couples together, but it can also be what keeps couples going through this difficult journey,” said Tabitha Ebbert, manager of programs and education for the Alzheimer's Association-Mid-South Chapter.
Here are some tips from the Alzheimer’s Association for navigating some of the changes couples living with the disease often face.
Adapt activities. Continue enjoying as many activities as you can together. Adapt activities as needed to make them comfortable and enjoyable. Let others know what social activities you feel most comfortable doing and the best ways to share time together.
Maintain communication. Be open with your feelings and what you’re going through — both as the person living with the disease and as a caregiver. Talk with your partner and family about what kind of help you need now or in the future.
Ask for help. Share information on how others can provide help and support as roles and responsibilities change.
Strengthen relationships. Focus on supportive relationships.
Be prepared. Plan ahead by putting together financial, legal and care plans.
Seek support. Sometimes befriending another couple in the same situation offers new possibilities for support. Find the nearest support group at communityresourcefinder.org.
The Alzheimer’s Association offers 24/7 support, reliable information, education and referrals to families impacted by this disease. That help is available online, in person or on the phone. Call (800) 272-3900. Visit ALZ.org. Or contact your local Alzheimer’s Association office.