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In Sickness and in Health

When Emily Fitz Randolf met Ron Wiedenhoeft during a singles group event, she was struck by his charm, intellect and traditional Bavarian outfit.

It was 1996 and Ron decided he would spend his 60th birthday trying something new. From the moment the two crossed paths at the singles soirée, they hit it off. He gushed about his passion for taking trips to Europe to photograph fine art and architecture, and Emily was enamored.

Nearly 14 years later, Ron is different. Lewy body dementia has taken his memory, verbal skills and changed his behavior, reducing him to a shell of his former self. Some days are better than others, but Ron, 73, no longer possesses the skills and desires that defined him just a few years ago.

He originally earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but later discovered music and art during a fellowship to Germany. He pursued his new loves and received a doctorate from Columbia University, then spent 21 years teaching liberal arts and international studies at various colleges, including the Colorado School of Mines. Ron settled in Littleton, but lived an adventurous, jet-setting life, traveling to Munich, Paris or Rome every summer.

During one excursion in Berlin in 1968, he was arrested for taking photos of a sensitive historical landmark and held for nine months with little contact with his family. As punishment for playing chess against a cell mate by using apple seeds on a crudely drawn board, the German officers prohibited Ron from sitting or lying on his bed during the day. He was interrogated daily, but never went to trial. Emily feels the event shaped her husband’s view on life, but cannot explain exactly how.

Creating memories to last a lifetime

Still, the incident did not deter Ron from traveling. After meeting Emily, the two set off for places like Venice and Salzburg, and created incredible memories that both thought would last a lifetime.

It was during a 2005 expedition to Alaska and British Columbia to shoot photos of totem poles that Emily first realized something was wrong. Ron, who made a habit of transferring all new photos to compact disc after returning to the hotel, inexplicably could not remember the process he had repeated so many times before. Even after Emily showed him the steps, Ron struggled, and went to see a neurologist upon their return to Colorado. The neurologist concluded that he exhibited early signs of Lewy body dementia.

Ron had been diagnosed in 1997 with Parkinson’s disease, but had not allowed the condition to affect his everyday life. He was determined to continue his travels despite his latest diagnosis, especially since he had retired in 2001. But Ron’s dementia symptoms could not be ignored and eventually affected his ability to go places by himself.

Ron, an independent, free-thinker with a vast knowledge of an array of subjects, was beginning to alarm his wife through his mental slip-ups. During a trip to Germany in 2006, he went missing for several hours at night after becoming lost. Emily, who was unable to speak German, grew worried until a policeman picked up Ron for wandering in the same area for a long period of time. Ron told the officer that it was his wife who was lost.

“Even at that time, it really frightened me,” she said.

Nonsensical writing on postcards he tried to send home also raised red flags. On their final international trip, Ron became lost at an airport and told a security officer that he was taking an outbound flight, when, in fact, he had just returned from Budapest, Hungary.

“That was it. That was the end,” she said.

Within the next 18 months, he was hurt during falls and became aggressive with Emily, prompting her to seek care from more qualified professionals. She eventually settled on Clare Bridge, an Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility on University Boulevard in Highlands Ranch that provides assisted living services. Meanwhile, Emily, 68, embarked on a separate fight for survival when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2008 and underwent a double mastectomy a month later. Ron’s dementia left him unable to communicate, and Emily was left to rely on the support of family, neighbors and friends from church to get through her ordeal. But she does not blame Ron. She knows he would care for her if he was able. She has been cancer-free since that summer.

Emily has seen her husband’s condition continue to gradually deteriorate. She becomes emotional when she recalls how vibrant his life was compared to now.

“Books define Ron, the slides define him, and his trips define him,” she said, adding she has wondered if he is now “bored to tears.”

Over Christmas, she admits she cried when thinking about their life. In a way, she feels as though she is a widow, even though her husband is still alive.

“I wept for what we had, and that life had become so narrow,” she said.

'I'm married for the rest of my life'

Sometimes, he sits for hours on end in his room with his head down; other times he walks around Clare Bridge. Emily believes the bright atmosphere and good care at the facility has brought comfort to Ron, even if he is not able to express his contentment. She has done her best to fight through the frustration and anger families go through when caring for a loved one with dementia.

“I can come here relaxed and just love him,” she said. “I’m married for the rest of my life. I really honor my marriage vows.”

Before losing his verbal skills, Ron occasionally reverted to speaking German and recognized his first wife on a visit a few years ago. Emily worries her husband might eventually forget who she is.

“That’s one of the things I’m concerned about because I’m in his short-term memory. It’s only been 13 years,” she said. “Hopefully, 13 years will be enough time.”

For now, she takes comfort in the small moments, when she sees the occasional hint of the Ron she knew. Ron went home for Thanksgiving in November. He didn’t say much at the dinner table, but as he and Emily pulled away from the house, he waved out the window and said, “I love you.” Emily cherishes those moments and the time they have left together on this Earth.

“He smiles at me and every time he smiles…the smiles are gifts,” she said, her eyes welling with tears.

 

This story was first published in the Littleton (Colorado) Independent. Used with permission.