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Battling Alzheimer's, couple turns outward for holidays

Sharing challenges of condition with others has helped bring support, understanding


“You gotta get up, kid.”

That wasn't a demand from a father to a young child, but words from Harold Arnold to his wife, Barb — both in their 80s — delivered with a joking smile, but casually enough for anyone to know that's how Harold and Barb talk to each other regularly. Alzheimer's disease and all.

About a year ago, Barb, 82, was diagnosed with the memory-affecting condition, and she and Harold knew they had to deliver the news.

“You need to tell people, but it's hard,” said Harold, 84. It took “a lot of wrestling around with ourselves. How do we do this, do we want to do this — on and on, you know?”

The Arnolds, Centennial residents, decided to share the news last year in the first Christmas letter they ever sent to dozens of family and friends. With Barb's permission, Harold wrote it in her voice.

“So, may I introduce the new Barb,” the letter read, maintaining that trademark humor, even then. “Harold says I am a little shorter (aren't we all), I seem to shake a lot, sometimes don't remember, don't drive, cooking has a little to be desired.”

Despite the difficult time in their lives, the letter still looked outward, ending, “(We) continue to have fun and enjoy life every day. We still value you as our friend.”

Harold saw himself and Barb as the ones who helped others —  not the other way around. So when people started reaching out, offering to clean their house or buy them ice cream, they didn't know how to respond.

“It just blew me away to think someone would do that,” Harold said. He and Barb have remained mostly self-sufficient, the way they prefer. But that hasn't stopped a neighbor from giving them a homemade “coupon book” of fill-in-the-blank pages that they can use to ask for help with anything they need.

“I might take them up on the ice cream,” he laughed.

After media coverage of their story aired in early December this year, the Arnolds even got messages from people in places like Grand Junction reaching out to help. A Facebook page — set up with the help of a grandchild — led to people from around Colorado reaching out to the Arnolds as well. They use the page to share photos and memories that their friends and family contribute, making “a true memory book for the entire family,” as they called it. They continued to share their story with friends and family in a Christmas letter for 2017.

But before the attention, there was work. Soon after Harold and Barb found out about her diagnosis, they started going to classes and support groups to find out how to manage the condition. Harold's gone to a program at Goodson Recreation Center, just about a mile from their home.

“No one knows what to do, and that's the thing: There's no right answer,” said Harold, who takes care of the shopping and cooking now for Barb — and she praises his cooking. Barb needs a ride now and then, she'll admit with a laugh, because her driver's license was taken away due to her condition.

They laugh about a lot of things because they have to, Harold said.

“It was good that I was diagnosed,” Barb said. “I don't wanna go running over anybody.” She misses not being able to drive the most.

Harold said it was hard to open up at first because Alzheimer's is a different disease than other old-age challenges.

“I had a heart attack, but it wasn't hard for me to tell (people) because they fixed me,” Harold said. “But I think (Alzheimer's) is a different story. It's a different story.”

One big change for Harold, he said, is the way with which he views certain words.

“Understanding, giving, receiving, sadness, happiness — (they) have a pretty much clear meaning to us now,” Harold said. “And to us, it means enjoying every moment you have. Because all that stuff, in the old days, it didn't have that meaning.

“Alzheimer's has taught us the true meaning of love, and that's sharing,” Harold said.

Such reflections graced the page of the Arnolds' Christmas letter this year. Barb and Harold are closer than they have been in years, the letter adds.

For other couples dealing with Alzheimer's, Harold said sharing, understanding and maintaining a concept of dignity are important to remember. A person has to be able to say how they would like to be treated, he added.

For Barb, patience was the advice she offered. People need “to stop and think” sometimes to get through it, Harold said.

But Barb summed it up in a way that seemed only natural to the Arnolds.

“You just gotta laugh.”


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