Couple learns to live with dementia

Published 8:55 pm Tuesday, February 11, 2020

By Diana McFarland


An album filled with photos brings back happy memories for Chuck and Donna Cowger, of sunny days spent boating with friends. 

 “I could do anything on the water,” said Chuck, adding that he once owned a boat that went 100 mph and that he had mastered the art of barefoot waterskiing.  

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But then the present day returns. 

On the kitchen counter are notes for Chuck — “Do not go out of the house,” advises one. Others provide similar instructions. 

“They seem to help,” said Donna.

On a nearby wall is the command unit for an elaborate home security system by Vivint, which is designed not to keep intruders out, but to keep Chuck in. It is connected to an app on Donna’s phone.

Chuck has a tendency to wander off, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Donna demonstrates how it works by opening the garage door. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

An ear-piercing alarm goes off. It’s loud, Donna admits, but said it works to startle Chuck and to wake her up. 

Chuck, 71, has dementia. 

It started a few years ago with headaches. An MRI showed fluid on Chuck’s brain and doctors drained that away, said Donna, 69, adding that it appears his dementia is vascular — one of many types other than the more commonly known Alzheimer’s. 

That helped for awhile, but then Chuck started to forget where he was. One memorable incident involved Chuck getting lost while out driving. 

Donna has since hidden the car keys.

Last winter, Chuck busted out a window at home while Donna was at work. He went next door and got in the neighbor’s car and tried to start it up. He was cold, wet, missing a shoe and wasn’t wearing a coat, said Donna. 

He thought he was in a warehouse and had to get out, said Donna.

Fortunately, the neighbor saw it was Chuck. She and her mother-in-law took him home, got him dressed, cleaned up the broken glass and put cardboard in the window before Donna got home from work.

“My neighbors have been wonderful. They care. They watch out for him. It is a blessing,” said Donna.

Chuck is also enrolled in Project Lifesaver, administered through the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office. Chuck wears an ankle bracelet, as he cut the wrist one off. The bracelet contains a unit that has a unique radio signal designed to alert the Sheriff’s Office if he goes missing. The security system that is connected to an app on Donna’s phone tells her of Chuck’s every movement throughout the day. That way she can track him while she’s at work. 

With the app, Donna can watch to see if Chuck is simply going to get the mail.

“That’s his favorite thing,” she said, adding that if he stays out too long, she can call a neighbor. 

Sometimes, Chuck will come to Donna and ask when she’s going to take him home. 

“We’ve been in this house for 18 years,” she said. 

One time Chuck didn’t recognize her, and they have been married 30 years. 

All of this wears on Donna.

Weekends are especially tough. 

“I feel restricted, that I’m stuck there at the house,” she said. Donna does go to church and tries to get out for a few hours on Saturdays, but that’s it. 

Chuck sleeps a lot. He also falls a lot too. One arm has numerous bruises from falling. 

Chuck thinks he’s just clumsy, but Donna believes it’s related to the dementia. She’s already preparing for the day when he can no longer attend to his personal needs.

Donna thinks the disease may run in Chuck’s family, as his mother died from it, and his sister also suffers from dementia and now lives in a nursing home in Texas. 

Yet, sitting together at the kitchen table last week, Chuck and Donna banter back and forth, reminisce about his dancing with their daughter, Katie, at her wedding. 

Chuck said he and Donna just hit it off when they met those many years ago. 

“We just clicked, you know,” he said. 

Donna pulls out another photo of her and Chuck when they were younger. He had a head of thick blond hair. Today, it’s just as thick, but gray, but his eyes are still bright blue. Donna ruffles his hair and smiles. 

“He was a good-looking guy, wasn’t he?” she asks. 

Despite the difficulty of their current situation, Donna tries to remain as upbeat as she can, telling the stories of her husband’s decline with tinges of humor. 

“I have to laugh or I would cry if I didn’t.”  {/mprestriction}