An Enduring Love While Living with Alzheimer’s
Photos By: Kim Leeson ~
You can hear the love in David McDavid’s voice when he talks about Kim, his wife of 33 years.
Kim, for whom he fell the moment he saw her at the University of Texas. Kim, mother of their son Mason and daughter Mulvey. Kim, whom he calls “the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s sweet, kind, gentle, has a good heart and a good soul.”
And Kim, for whom he now shops for clothes online because her Alzheimer’s disease makes shopping at the mall next to impossible. Kim, who he makes sure gets enough protein and calories and takes her six pills three times daily. Kim, for whom he’s hired someone to do her hair and makeup when they go out because she doesn’t remember how to do those things herself.
“Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease,” David said. “It moves your life from enjoyment, to living through boxes that need checking off: ‘Did I remember to get her to the bathroom?’”
Kim is now 59. She was diagnosed with younger onset Alzheimer’s six years ago but had been showing signs long before that.
When she began forgetting appointments and asking the same questions over and over, she and David never considered she might have the memory-stealing disease. She was only 52, after all. Besides, they reasoned, the family had undergone a slew of stress-inducing life changes in the previous few years, any one of which would cause major disruptions in daily life.
They had sold the car dealerships that his father, David McDavid Sr., had started, and which had been in his family for generations.
Mason and Mulvey left for college. Kim suffered three separate head injuries while snow skiing, cycling, and then being rear-ended by an 18-wheeler. Her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and died. Her mother had emergency heart surgery. And David was diagnosed with throat cancer.
“Not that we talked about it specifically,” David, who is now cancer-free, said. “But we thought, ‘We have the highest stress items in the world going on. No way can it get any worse than this.’ We assumed her memory and functionality would come back.”
Instead, they got worse. Kim, a former financial wealth advisor who had long handled the family’s finances, was having trouble doing what used to come so easily.
“We thought it was a downloading issue,” David said. “She spent countless hours on the phone with the bank and with Quicken to get this fixed. Once it got fixed, a month or so later it screwed up again.”
That episode, combined with repeated questions, inability to remember appointments, and disruptions in everyday functions, spurred David, and Kim to seek professional medical help.
Each expert they consulted, including two neurologists and a primary care physician, came to the same conclusion: Kim had early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“She was diagnosed June 2, 2016,” David said. “It’s one of those dates, like September 11, 2001, you’ll never forget. Most people who get checked for any kind of cognitive development don’t expect the diagnosis to be Alzheimer’s. It comes from out of the blue.”
According to Blue Cross and Blue Shield, diagnosis rates of Alzheimer’s and other dementias rose 200 percent between 2013 and 2017 in adults ages 30 to 64. In 2017, 37,000 Americans alone were diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
“The path is the same for early or late onset,” David said. “It’s a downward decline. The steps can either be steep or shallow based on the cognitive impairment you have. The thought is based on the younger you are when it’s diagnosed, the faster it progresses. You’ll hold onto one level, hopefully for a little while, and then you’ll take a step down, and you just hope it’s two inches not 12. You’re never ready.”
Alzheimer’s is sneaky, he said. “It’s harmful. It’s devious. It’s all those things. The diagnosis is essentially a death sentence.”
The first thing he did, David said, was cry. “You cry a lot,” he said. “You cry often. You cry regularly. I am so deeply in love, and the thought of losing her…”
His voice trailed off. He knew already he had lost parts of Kim. She can’t dress herself without putting something on backwards or inside-out. She leaves nouns out of stories she tells. She calls their longtime housekeeper by their daughter’s name. She no longer remembers their intimate moments.
Yet, David said, “Even with all this crap, Kim and I are basically happy. We’re happier than we’ve been in a long time. A lot of the things that used to matter, don’t anymore.”
David has rallied, doing what needs to be done or, as he called it, “lifting yourself into practicality.” He and Kim downsized, moving from their large home into a one-story smaller one. He started them on the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, olive oil, and lean proteins (several studies have shown this diet can reduce the risk of dementia).
He reviewed her health insurance policy to make sure it was in order. He found a holistic physician whose husband has Alzheimer’s and who practices both Eastern and Western medicine. He makes sure she goes to her doctors’ appointments.
David also reached out to the Alzheimer’s Association, which, he said, “I cannot say enough good things about. They have resources for financial planning, for legal planning, for medical planning.”
And he told people what was happening.
“Alzheimer’s is not selective; there is nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said. He also supports AWARE Dallas, which helps fund nonprofits fighting Alzheimer’s. “It takes a team, your family, your friends, a group of professionals.
Kim has always thrived on human interaction, so sometimes she and David go to social events like his father’s birthday party. Many people there, David said, didn’t realize she had Alzheimer’s. She was the outgoing, caring Kim many friends remembered.
But the evening took its toll. The next day, she was short-tempered, defiant, and wiped out.
“We call it an ‘Alzheimer’s hangover,’” David said.
But they keep going, taking steps down. Some are quick and some linger, but, as much as possible, the two take them together. They have come to the realization that there is a last time for everything and at the end of each day you wonder what, if anything, is going to be added to that list today.
Still, David said, what makes this especially tough “is realizing I have nobody to share my anguish with. I haven’t even taken a baby step in my own grief about this.”
He does make a point to exercise three mornings a week with friends while Kim is sleeping. He wouldn’t be able to do that, he said, if his daughter wasn’t there. She moved home during the pandemic and works remotely.
As grateful as he is, David said he doesn’t want Mulvey to put her own life on hold. Eventually, he’ll need to find in-home help for Kim.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but several medications have been approved that might slow the progress. David is grateful to know more are on the horizon, with a caveat.
“I’m more excited for my kids and for other people than I am for Kim,” he said. “In almost every single case, drugs are being approved to treat early stages, and we’re past the early stages.”
He said he hopes talking about Kim’s disease and the steps they’ve taken already can help others who are dealing with their own Alzheimer’s hurdles.
“I’m just a guy like everyone else,” David said. “We get up every day. We interact. We help people if we can. In doing so, maybe we can help someone have one less regret.”