Alzheimer's brings bittersweet goodbye for Centennial couple

Couple adapted to life together until the very end

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After each of Barb Arnold's children and her sister told her goodbye, her husband, Harold Arnold, gave her one final message of support.

“Barb, it's OK, you can go,” Harold Arnold told his 85-year-old wife, an Alzheimer's patient at a Centennial memory care facility. “And she just died (then). It was so peaceful. I was holding her, yeah, real tight. I was lucky I could do that.”

Barb Arnold's death on Aug. 28 capped off a loving marriage of 45 years, the last few of which Harold Arnold spent helping her through a battle with Alzheimer's disease, a memory-affecting condition that worsens over time.

Though the disease recast the dynamic of the couple's marriage, led Harold Arnold to sell their house to keep Barb living at Cherry Hills Assisted Living and Memory Care, and stole Barb's memories — even of her husband — Harold stayed by her side until the bittersweet end.

“We had a great life,” said Harold, an 87-year-old Littleton resident who has advice to offer other couples who go through Alzheimer's disease.

Accidental meeting

Barb Arnold, born in Boise, Idaho, as the youngest of six children, attended nurse's training and eventually came to metro Denver, working at medical facilities that included a hospital in the downtown Denver area, Harold said.

Sometime around the early 1970s, Harold's daughter cut her hand while working at an Orange Julius, and Harold took her to a doctor whom Barb happened to work for. Harold's daughter asked him, with excitement, what he thought of the nurse — his kids were trying to set him up to date after his first wife died at 36 with lupus.

It was a series of small, quiet details that led Harold to fall for Barb — they attended a party, and the next day, the two went hiking. Harold recalls Barb carrying a backpack and feeling impressed as they hiked — and “she looked very pretty carrying the backpack,” Harold said.

“I fell in love,” Harold said. It was “a combination of things, and maybe it just jumps out at you. That is one of the times I thought she was really neat.”

The couple saw each other for roughly a year or two before getting married, Harold remembers. Barb had also been married before — she had four kids and Harold had two, all pre-teens and teenagers when Barb and Harold married, Harold said.

Harold, who worked in the meat business, including as a butcher, and also worked as a real estate professional in Littleton, was born in Wichita, Kansas, and was 4 or 5 when his family moved to Englewood. He and Barb lived in Littleton when they married and then moved to a mountain area near Bailey. Later, they moved to a home in what is now Centennial and lived there for about 25 years. Their kids attended school in Littleton, Englewood and Bailey.

The couple eventually came to have 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Along the way, they built a cabin in the mountains, hiked together, cross-country skied, and enjoyed fondue and wine, Harold said with a laugh.

“We loved life, pretty much,” Harold said. “I can't think of one special (memory) right now, but I know we loved a lot of them."

Barb's Alzheimer's diagnosis came in late 2016, but the disease's development was noticeable long before then, Harold said.

There were “so many things you notice that aren't right and you help with, and you don't realize you're helping. You'd say, 'Oh, look who's here,'” when a visitor comes, without realizing it helped her remember, Harold recalls. The reality set in when Barb couldn't remember her daughter, Harold said.

Life after diagnosis

Soon after Harold and Barb found out about her diagnosis, they began attending classes and support groups to learn to manage the condition. Harold went to a program at Goodson Recreation Center, just about a mile from their former Centennial home. Harold adjusted to shopping and cooking for Barb, whose driver's license was taken away due to her condition.

“I tried to always make it, 'What if that was me? How would I want to be treated?' That helped,” Harold said. “I wouldn't say I did it every time … But I did my best.”

Neighbors pitched in, too, even after Barb moved into the memory care facility near their former home around Thanksgiving 2018. A neighbor would come over and sing to Barb, and another neighbor would feed her lunch to give Harold a break — generally, he fed her every meal.

Harold urges others with loved ones who have Alzheimer's to involve them in decisions about moving into a care facility. Harold worked with Barb to choose her furniture and how it should be arranged.

“I see people come and look for a place to put their loved one, but the loved one's not there,” Harold said. They “bring the person over and buy new furniture, and the poor person's lost.”

A few weeks ago, Barb's condition took a turn for the worse, and she had stopped eating.

“But we talked and laughed a lot. You either laugh or you're crying in this type of situation. I put a hummingbird feeder outside her window, and we'd sit and watch the hummingbirds every day, by golly. And we'd watch a Hallmark movie. She seemed to enjoy that,” Harold said.

Barb was always glad to see her husband, and although she didn't talk much, he recalls a time she said: “Harold, thank you for all you do for me.”

Harold, who now lives at a senior home community in Littleton, still finds himself looking at the clock and thinking he needs to visit Barb, he said, laughing.

“It (was) a long process, and I am doing all right, but you're sad for so long, you know?” Harold said, adding that when Barb died in his arms, he knew “the right thing happened.”

Harold wants others to know they should be collaborative with a loved one who is living with Alzheimer's.

“If I could say anything,” Harold said, “I would say: Treat the people how you would like to be treated.”

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