Laughs and memories abound after the 58 years Egon and Hanna Gimbel have lived and loved together.
The couple married 56 years ago in their hometown of Bremen, Germany. They, arrived in Montreal by boat on July 1, 1966 with their two young children. The couple settled in Victoria where Hanna’s older brother and sister lived. Egon, now 79, worked as a construction labourer for two years and then for an office equipment repair company, where he remained until retirement. Hanna, 77, raised the kids and because her English was limited, started her Canadian work life washing dishes at Woodward’s department store, before getting into sales.
The couple has one grandson and come July, they will become great-grandparents, which should create even more memories.
However, two years ago after Egon underwent knee surgery, he fell into delirium and was unresponsive for 10 days.
“That scared the whole daylight out of me,” says Hanna, 77, glancing at Egon as she remembered. “Our son said you were a space cadet.”
“Me, a space cadet? I didn’t know,” Egon says with a laugh.
The couple couldn’t always speak candidly and tease of each other about what transpired two years ago, but time has helped. After the delirium, Egon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that affects memory. It commonly occurs in people over age 65, but early onset can begin at 30. It starts with simple forgetfulness, such as misplacing keys, gradually advancing to complete memory loss. There is no cure.
“I felt really bad,” Egon says, remembering the moment he was told. “All the things I’ve been doing, a lot of those things, I couldn’t do anymore.”
“It felt like a death sentence for me,” Hanna says.
Egon stopped driving and can no longer venture out on his own without worrying his wife. He became depressed and moody, which has since been treated. Hanna already had some experience with the disease.
“My brother had (Alzheimer’s) and he died a year and a half ago,” she says. “My sister was diagnosed last year. Now I think, ‘oh my gosh, when is it going to be my turn? I can’t afford to have it.’”
In only five to seven per cent of cases the cause is connected to genes, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
Egon believes his mother also had Alzheimer’s in her old age, based on recent education about the disease.
The couple went to the Alzheimer Society for information and through a series of workshops, the couple learned what to expect. Hanna said it took time to get over mourning about the life they had before the diagnosis. They now live in the present and make the most of it.
“When Egon does something weird, we try to laugh about it,” Hanna says. “I believe laughing is an excellent cure to everything.”
Egon hasn’t noticed a decline in his memory. He feels the same as he did before the diagnosis and is confident he has the faculty to drive. Hanna though is quick to point out the changes. Once Egon locked himself out of their VicWest condo and instead of calling someone to help, he just stood at the door.
“It’s also little things,” Hanna says. “Egon was always a neat freak. He would never leave anything out and always put things back (but that has changed). And his interest in things is no longer there.”
Friends also shy away from them. That doesn’t bother Egon much, but Hanna feels it might have to do with a lack of education on the disease.
“They think we are contagious, or Egon wouldn’t understand what they are talking about or that he’s bonkers,” Hanna said. “Or they just talk to me and not him.”
“Because Hanna, you talk (too much),” Egon says, with a smile.
Over time, Egon will require more care, which will take an increasingly emotional and physical toll on Hanna. Already she learned that as a full-time caregiver, she needs some alone time, so every Thursday, she drops Egon off at a program and heads to yoga for a couple of hours. They attend Alzheimer’s-related classes together to help exercise Egon’s brain and meet others. In the last two years they have seen healthy people decline then die.
“That scares me, that I’m getting that way,” Egon says. “Especially when you see people and they want to talk to you and they cannot. You have to say, ‘yes’ and ‘I understand’ and ‘I know what you mean,’ to make them feel good.”
Egon knows there may be a time when Hanna will be unable to care for him and he will be admitted to a home, a subject he is sensitive about.
“I am very, very willing to keep him in the house as long as I can but I’m getting old too,” Hanna said. “I feel that it is a little too early to talk about because he gets very depressed about it. We live day-to-day because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The Alzheimer Society regularly holds free workshops. On Feb. 11 the society hosts a two-hour session starting at 5:30 p.m. and on Feb. 20, a five-session series starts on caring for a person with dementia. Both workshops are at Hillside Seniors Health Centre, 1454 Hillside Ave. To register, call 250-370-5641.
The Alzheimer Society B.C. can be reached at 250-382-2052 or firstname.lastname@example.org.