Martin Schreiber married his high school sweetheart, Elaine Thaney, on June 3, 1961. But, more than four decades later, “Marty” felt his beloved wife — his “First Elaine” — begging to slip away as her daily skills declined, and her interest in hobbies and memories of their past years together faded.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Elaine — who had cared for the couple’s four children, helped her husband campaign for public office and taught school — eventually became dependent on Marty, whom she sometimes no longer recognizes as her life partner.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes and deepening confusion about events, usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.
Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, has no cure, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, but treatments for symptoms are available, and research continues.
“This disease is what it is,” the 78-year-old Marty said during a recent phone interview. “You have to learn to live with it.”
And, learn he has. The former state governor, lieutenant governor and senator, along with Cathy Breitenbucher, has written a book — “My Two Elaines: Learning, Coping, and Surviving as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver,” hoping to share some of that knowledge with others who find themselves following in his footsteps.
And, just like he did during his political days, Marty has been traveling the state, sharing the story of his journey with his “two Elaines” — the woman he married and the woman who has Alzheimer’s. Tonight, he is speaking at a full event hosted by HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals, Our House Senior Living and the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Eau Claire County.
“This disease takes you to places you never thought you’d go,” said Marty, who lives in Milwaukee. “My overall goal (in all of this) is to help caregivers — (current and future) — learn to cope and survive.”
More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer Association, the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research. By 2025, this number could rise as high as 16 million.
More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. And, 35 percent of caregivers report their health has gotten worse because of care responsibilities.
As Elaine’s mental decline continued, her body clock was affected, and Marty found himself getting less sleep. As she needed more care, he found himself giving up his workouts with friends, gaining 20 pounds in a year and a half, feeling isolated and getting “irrationally irritable.”
But, he found ways to cope, survive and love his “Second Elaine.” He learned “therapeutic fibbing.” For example, if Elaine thought he was in Madison on business all day when he actually was in Milwaukee, he’d agree with her, rather than correcting her. He also took Elaine to an adult day care program, giving himself some respite, and accepted help from the Alzheimer’s Association and its resources.
“To be a good caregiver, asking for help is exactly what you have you do,” Schreiber wrote. “That’s how you show how strong you are.”
Eventually, “Marty’s One-Man Nursing Home” couldn’t provide the care Elaine needed, and she moved to a residential memory unit.
“Home, I’ve learned, isn’t a building,” he wrote. “It’s a place inside you where you feel secure. That goes for both of us.”