“He was so nervous, and I had a suspicion he was going to propose,” said Janice Felzenberg, while sitting on the very same couch where her husband David had proposed to her 20 years earlier. “And I said to him ‘Just go ahead and blurt out what you want to say!’”
“I knew I was going to propose to her, and I was shaking like a leaf,” David Felzenberg chimed in. “Not quite sure why I was so nervous, because we knew each other so very well. Fortunately, she said yes.”
Janice and David Felzenberg, both members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, met each other more than 22 years ago at a nursing home where they both worked. Years later, David was asking her to spend the rest of her life with him. “What attracted us to each other, quite a bit, is that we could laugh together, have fun, and just enjoy each other’s company,” he said.
It was Feb. 12, 2000, two days before Valentine’s Day and in the middle of a snowstorm, that their close friend Jack Anders officiated their very small ceremony, and the two vowed their commitment to each other — a commitment that, today, is being tested in a very real way.
One of the biggest initial red flags involved a very long, and unintentional, road trip on Janice’s part in 2017. “There was a major incident with driving,” David said. “She dropped me off at a meeting, Old Court Road and Reisterstown Road. So, after the meeting, at a restaurant, she was going to meet me in the parking lot or the Pikesville Branch Library.
“We, the Baltimore County Police and I, found her 42 miles away in Caroll County, Liberty Road extended,” David said.
Then, also in 2017, came the diagnosis: early stage Alzheimer’s. David described his reaction to the news as one of “shock. It was devastating. Talking about it now, it’s very, very painful.”
Janice herself was mostly quiet during the JT interview, sitting on their couch and looking over a book of puzzles.
“I try not to do things that’ll upset him,” Janice said, when asked what the experience has been like. “I know that there are things that I can’t do by myself. And, you know, like to go out and shop, things like that. I know I can’t do that. And I just accept it, and I’m thankful I have someone like him. He seems to understand and treats me very well. He’s a good husband.”
Janice’s short-term memory has also been affected by the disease; handrails have been installed in their house to help prevent falling, and although she was previously “a professional cook … now you don’t want her to burn her hand on the stove,” said David.
“Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that affects cognitive function,” explained Ilene Rosenthal, program director at the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Maryland Chapter. “It frequently starts with minor changes, such as memory loss, people getting lost going to familiar places, difficulty completing familiar tasks. Over time, it affects other functions like vision, mobility, and memory. Unfortunately it is progressive, fatal, and there is no cure or treatment.”
Rachel Brodsky, a certified care manager and elder care specialist at Jewish Community Services, painted a similar picture of how Alzheimer’s can affect a person. “Someone in the early stages may see a minimal impact in their functioning,” she said. “Someone in an advanced stage may not be able to do anything for themselves. They may not be able to dress themselves, feed themselves, toileting, generally all levels of personal care. They may not recognize their family members. They may not really know who they are anymore.”
Rosenthal and Brodsky’s description of an Alzheimer’s patient does not appear inconsistent with David’s description of Janice’s condition. “She no longer drives,” David said. “Once that incident occurred, then she realized that driving no longer would be safe.” Whereas household chores were once divided fairly equally between the two, David said he now does essentially all of them.
According to Rosenthal, “there is a lot of research going on to better understand [Alzheimer’s], and to change the trajectory of people who are affected.”
However, David has adopted a realistic outlook. “Right now she can do the activities of daily living,” he said, but “invariably it’s not going to get better. … It’s going to be more and more difficult to do certain things. So a person with Alzheimer’s will need assistance with more things as time goes on.”
While David has no illusions regarding the seriousness of Janice’s condition, it has diminished neither his love for her nor his resolve to provide her with what she needs. “It is what it is,” he said. “And not to dwell on the negative aspects, because that’s not going to change anything, the diagnosis. And you have to start working on how to be the best caregiver that you can be.”
To that end, David has been seeking out training courses that will better prepare him to support Janice as time marches forward. In March, he plans to take “Powerful Tools for Caregivers,” an intensive, two-day course organized by the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program and the Called to Care program. Described by David as a “train-the-trainer course,” it will allow him to pay things forward, and share vital caregiving skills with others.
That being said, even with the best training, providing proper care to a family member with Alzheimer’s can be an immense challenge. “Initially, families will want to stay close to the person, and make sure they don’t wander,” said Rosenthal. “At some point, it will be necessary for families to provide 24-hour supervision.”
Unsurprisingly, a responsibility like this can wear on a person quite dramatically. “There is a very deep emotional toll, as you watch someone you love disappear in front of you, and as they reach a point where they do not recognize their family members,” Rosenthal continued. “It can be very challenging to manage the care as the disease progresses.”
On that point, Brodsky noted that caregiving “can be extremely stressful, and it’s very important for caregivers to take care of themselves.”
While David has considered that, at some point, a nursing home may be necessary to provide Janice with the care she requires, for now he has no immediate plans for any changes in living arrangements. “What we plan to do, to the extent possible, is to age in place. This is our home.”
While there is no denying that Janice’s condition has greatly impacted their lives, David was adamant that their commitment is as strong as ever. “The person you see here is the person that you get,” he said. “She is just a kind person, and people meet her, and they like her a great deal. … The illness hasn’t changed the way we feel about each other. I’m still in love with her; she’s in love with me.”
Those in need of assistance in dealing with Alzheimer’s can call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900, and visit their website alz.org. Those in need are also invited to attend the Dementia Caregivers Support Group, co-sponsored by JCS and The Alzheimer’s Association, which meets at 10 am on the 3rd Monday of each month at the Edward A. Meyerberg Center. https://www.jcsbaltimore.org/events/dementia-caregivers-support-group-9/