After 58 years of living and loving together, laughs and memories still abound for Egon and Hanna Gimbel.
The couple married in their hometown of Bremen, Germany. They arrived in Montreal by boat on July 1, 1966 with their two young children before settling in Victoria, where Hanna’s older brother and sister lived.
Egon, now 79, worked in construction for two years and then for an office equipment repair company, where he remained until retirement.
Hanna, 77, raised their 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. “Our son said you were a space cadet.”
“Me, a space cadet? I didn’t know,” Egon says, laughing.
The couple didn’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 disease, a progressive disease that affects memory.
Alzheimer’s 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, recalling 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, a condition which has since been treated. Hanna already had some experience with dementia.
“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.’”
Egon believes his mother also had Alzheimer’s in her old age, based on what he knows now about the disease.
In only five to seven per cent of cases the cause is connected to genes, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
The couple sought further information and through a series of workshops, learned what to expect. Hanna said it took time to get over mourning 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 still has the faculty to drive.
Hanna, though, is quick to point out the changes.
Once Egon locked himself out of their Vic West condo and instead of calling someone to help, he just stood at the door. “It’s also little things,” she continues. “Egon was always a neat freak. He would never leave anything out and always put things back. 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 that Egon wouldn’t understand what they are talking about or that he’s bonkers,” she says. “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 his wife. Already she learned that as a full-time caregiver, she needs time alone, so every Thursday she drops Egon off at a program and heads to yoga for a couple of hours.
The couple 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,” she says. “I feel that it is a little too early to talk about that 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 hosts a five-session series on caring for a person with dementia, starting Feb. 20 at the Hillside Seniors Health Centre, 1454 Hillside Ave. To register, call 250-370-5641.
The Alzheimer Society of B.C. can be reached at 250-382-2052 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.