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The long good-bye

Published May 05. 2012 09:01AM

Family members are calling it an "act of profound love."

Others less understanding might use words like murder and suicide. But those with compassion and empathy know better.

Charles Snelling, 81, had been married to Adrienne for 61 years. True love for the Upper Macungie Township couple.

But when Adrienne developed Alzheimer's, dementia took over and Charles had a hard time watching it happen.

The family says Charles struggled to manage the effects of the illness, which some call "the long good-bye."

And that's what Alzheimer's is - an illness that cruelly takes our loved ones in small doses, hour by hour, day by day.

It puts a strain on caregivers and an even bigger strain on family. When family members happen to be the caregivers, the strain can be too much to handle.

On March 29, with no end in sight and nothing to look forward to, Charles killed his wife and then took his own life.

Family members are shocked, but they say Charles acted out of "deep devotion."

Sadly, the tragedy isn't unusual. In fact, it wasn't the only one that happened in our area within the past few weeks. Over an hour away, Chester Welebob had been married to Mildred for 60 years. The Wilkes-Barre Township couple loved each other for a lifetime, say neighbors.

But a few months ago, everything changed. Mildred developed Alzheimer's and was admitted to St. Luke's Villa, a nursing home.

Charles couldn't stand to be separated from the love of his life.

"He just couldn't live without her," says neighbor Candy Schiner-Tohme.

On April 18, Charles took a gun and shot his beloved, then killed himself.

Luzerne County police call it a murder-suicide. But those who knew the couple don't use those words. They call it true love.

Truth is, Alzheimer's is so devastating it belongs in a class by itself. It creates its own culture.

"It's a malevolent disease," said my friend Judy Gilbert when her husband, John, entered a care facility. His dementia had grown worse and he could no longer stay in his Tamaqua home.

John lasted a long time, although he was no longer himself. Alzheimer's changes a person's personality. It also can keep a sufferer awake and confused at night, something known as sundowner's syndrome. Eventually, the patient can no longer feed himself or swallow. When the inevitable happens, it becomes a blessing of sorts.

Yet it's never a blessing when we lose those who are the center of our lives. And it's certainly no blessing to see loved ones taken from us mentally and physically before death puts in the ultimate claim. The long good-bye is a heartless, horrible thing.

I never doubted Judy's assessment about the pure evil of Alzheimer's. There is something especially wrong and inhumane about an illness that turns our loved ones into something they're not. Such a condition is almost inconceivable.

Today, 10 percent of people over age 65 have Alzheimer's, 50 percent of those over 85, according to the National Institute on Aging. Alzheimer's will increase as baby boomers become seniors.

I've cared for a terminal cancer patient and a heart disease patient. Those were difficult situations. But nothing prepared me for being a caregiver to a mom with Alzheimer's. Add to that the frustration of medicines that don't work and a health care system that isn't a system at all.

Above all, no son or daughter should ever have to endure the parent-child role reversal and the feeling of helplessness.

I've seen what Alzheimer's can do. It changed my life forever. Alzheimer's destroys.

It takes our loved ones away in torturously small steps and it changes our families. It kills the human spirit and refashions faith. It can even destroy faith entirely.

It tells us we're nothing more than a fragile, biological process susceptible to changing winds of time and electro-chemical reactions.

Ultimately, it forces loving, devoted husbands like Charles and Chester to kill the women at the center of their world, and then kill themselves.

Alzheimer's is a godless condition in a world of doubt and confusion. In a most evil way it taunts our mortality. It robs us of our loved ones and our happiness, leaving us broken and clinging to a single thread of hope that medical science finds an answer.

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