Early-Onset Alzheimer's Poses Challenges For Marriage, Finances, Life : Shots - Health News More than 200,000 Americans live with early-onset Alzheimer's, with dementia-like symptoms developing in their 40s and 50s. The disease can put an unexpected strain on relationships and finances.
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To Help Others, One Couple Talks About Life With Early-Onset Alzheimer's

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To Help Others, One Couple Talks About Life With Early-Onset Alzheimer's

To Help Others, One Couple Talks About Life With Early-Onset Alzheimer's

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Researchers say as many as 200,000 Americans experience early-onset Alzheimer's disease. They develop dementia-like symptoms in their 40s and 50s. And that can mean struggles with jobs and money or with identity and family. Bella Doolittle is confronting all of this. She and her husband, Will, are talking publicly about her illness in a series of essays and podcasts. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann spent some time with them.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Bella Doolittle is in her kitchen filling little brown bottles.

BELLA DOOLITTLE: I just finished making my annual Christmas presents. It's homemade Kahlua. It's the best you will ever drink.

WILL DOOLITTLE: Why don't we give him a little sip?

B. DOOLITTLE: And I have my vanilla beans imported from Madagascar.

MANN: Bella is a young-looking 59 years old. She wears a T-shirt and has a bright red tangle of hair. She watches my face as I take a sip.

Oh, my God.

B. DOOLITTLE: I make it every year.

MANN: But this year is different. Bella says for a while now she's just felt off. She says her brain gets fuzzy.

B. DOOLITTLE: I got lost a couple of times in neighborhoods that I'm familiar with. It was dark, but I thought to myself, that should not have, you know, put me out there that I couldn't figure out where - how I was going to get back home.

MANN: The Doolittles live in Glens Falls, a little suburban city in upstate New York. They raised four children - two grown and gone, two still in college. She and her husband, Will, started traveling to Albany about an hour away for test after test. Last February, her neurologist said the words.

B. DOOLITTLE: Well, we figured out what's going on with you, and this is it - Alzheimer's. And I'm like, no, it's not.

W. DOOLITTLE: You asked them - you said, well, how long does this take, or how long do I have or something? And he said, on average, eight years.

B. DOOLITTLE: Yeah.

W. DOOLITTLE: That really upset you.

B. DOOLITTLE: That really pissed me off. It did, absolutely. I mean, I was pretty devastated. I'm like, eight years? I haven't even gotten wrinkly yet.

MANN: Bella says after she heard the diagnosis, she sat in the car and cried. Will Doolittle writes for the local newspaper. After the shock of the diagnosis eased, they decided that they would tell their story in his column and also in a new podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "ALZHEIMER'S CHRONICLES")

W. DOOLITTLE: I'm Will Doolittle, and my wife is Bella. We're facing a lot of practical questions about finances, and wills and whether Bella will keep working or retire. And we're facing personal questions as our relationship is challenged by this. And as we react to the changes it brings, it's a journey.

MANN: That first episode of "Alzheimer's Chronicles" appeared in November. Bella says the decision to talk publicly about her illness wasn't hard.

B. DOOLITTLE: I don't feel like it's something that's, like, Some bad secret. It's not something I brought on myself, and it really isn't - I mean, it isn't something that people should be embarrassed about. But I know a lot of people who have this are afraid for other people to know.

MANN: Other doctors have told Bella that that eight-year timeline - it's not certain at all. There's a lot of variation in the way this disease progresses. But for Bella and Will, things are already moving frighteningly fast. In the first podcast, they're still debating whether she needs to leave her job at a local community college. A month later, the decision's been made, and we hear she's not happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "ALZHEIMER'S CHRONICLES")

B. DOOLITTLE: It's not my condition's fault that society isn't ready yet to acknowledge that just because you're not perfect, you're not as useful.

MANN: Bella says he's convinced with a little help and support, she could've kept working. But as she talks about it, she gets confused, loses the timeline.

B. DOOLITTLE: So I stayed for a couple of more years, and I recently retired.

W. DOOLITTLE: So you didn't stay for a couple more years. You stayed for, you know, ten more months.

B. DOOLITTLE: That was a couple years ago.

W. DOOLITTLE: No, it wasn't, hon. That was last spring.

B. DOOLITTLE: Was it?

MANN: So Bella, I see Will already helping you with memory. How does that feel?

B. DOOLITTLE: I appreciate it. I mean, there's nothing he can do that will make me angry.

MANN: One irony - kind of painful, kind of bittersweet - is that Bella and Will are experiencing a kind of honeymoon during this crisis, a new kind of romance. Part of that is because Bella's personality is already really different. They talk about it on the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "ALZHEIMER'S CHRONICLES")

W. DOOLITTLE: You're a little more goofy, a little more upbeat and jolly.

B. DOOLITTLE: (Laughter) That's a little oxymoron.

W. DOOLITTLE: It is? Why?

B. DOOLITTLE: Because I've been diagnosed with a disease that I have an expiration date with. So I should be, like, depressed and walking around like the world is about to end because it is.

MANN: Bella agrees. She's kind of a different person now - warmer, less of a perfectionist. Will says he misses the part of Bella that's gone, misses that bossy, Type A, sometimes fierce woman.

W. DOOLITTLE: Well, of course, I mean, you know, we fell in love. We've had a long marriage. And we had - you know, I - it's not like I wanted parts of her to fade away. You know, I didn't wish for that. I'm not saying I exactly miss (laughter) our fights, but, you know, that's a part of who we were as a couple. And that's not there now. It just really isn't.

MANN: So the Doolittles are making all kinds of adjustments as they try to figure out where this goes next. Will has taken over managing their finances. A lot of that used to be Bella's job. Early-onset Alzheimer's is a complicated condition. Bella will eventually require special care. In the meantime, now that she's not working, she's arranging to take art classes, thinking about trying to start a home business. On the podcast, she sounds committed to managing this, maintaining some control even as her mind changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "ALZHEIMER'S CHRONICLES")

B. DOOLITTLE: I feel like I can go with the flow. But if the flow isn't going the way I want it to go, I'm going to change that direction.

W. DOOLITTLE: So that's an optimistic way of looking at it.

B. DOOLITTLE: Yeah, it is optimistic.

MANN: Bella says she hopes to break down some of the stigma of Alzheimer's, showing she can be productive and hold on to the best parts of herself at least for a while.

B. DOOLITTLE: It doesn't stop me from doing life. The one thing that I really dislike about the disease is that I'm afraid that I'm not going to have as much time with my husband as I would like. I want us to be really old together. But if I die early, he'll be on his own, and I feel bad about that.

MANN: Bella and Will plan to continue the podcast as her Alzheimer's advances, talking candidly about this part of their marriage, about their love and about this disease, the things they're gaining and the things slipping away. Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF U137's "LET ME KEEP THIS MEMORY")

CHANG: You'll find a link to the Doolittles' podcast "Alzheimer's Chronicles" at our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF U137's "LET ME KEEP THIS MEMORY")

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