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As America's 78 million baby boomers hit retirement age, one in eight is expected to develop Alzheimer's disease. This week on Radio Boston we're focusing on one of those baby-boomers: Ralph Hergert.
Ralph, 64, lives in Somerville with his wife, Leslie, 66. He was born to a Navy family and moved around as a child. During Vietnam he was a conscientious objector and worked for the Red Cross. He's a former Baptist pastor, and served as the director of human services for Mass. Congressmen Mike Capuano when Capuano was the mayor of Somerville.
It took years for Ralph to get a diagnosis. After a PET scan in 2009, at the age of 62, Ralph was diagnosed with "probable Alzheimer's."
This week we followed Ralph and his wife Leslie through their daily routine, and heard how the disease has affected their lives.
Every morning Ralph used to make coffee and bring it to Leslie as she put on her makeup. Now, Leslie makes the coffee. Over the course of the past year, there are things Ralph has lost the ability to do alone. Like bring something down from the attic. Or run the laundry unsupervised.
"He still does the laundry, which is very wonderful, and I appreciate it," Leslie said. "But a lot of times I have to go downstairs and look at it. Cause he'll be confused about whether a load is going in or coming out, if it's going from the washer to the dryer. I mean, a lot of those things - there's a lot of different steps to them. And a year ago, he didn't have to ask me that."
While they have cereal at their kitchen table, Leslie goes over the day's events, which are copied out on multiple white boards on their refrigerator in red dry-erase marker. The notes are simple and clear: e.g. "Rogerson House - 8 a.m." Ralph has, as he describes it, "a very modest capacity" for lists.
The days are up and down. Even if Ralph is having a difficult morning, that doesn't necessarily mean the afternoon will be as well.
"If I were writing about it, I'd write alternating chapters," Leslie said. "You know, one chapter would be: 'this is really ok; it's not the worse thing that could happen to you.' And the next chapter would be: 'this is horrible.'"
On the days Ralph goes to Rogerson House — a care facility in Jamaica Plain that has a day program for people with memory loss — Ralph has between half an hour and an hour alone after Leslie leaves for work. He still reads books - the Hergerts' library runs deep in detective paperbacks - but he also likes to get on his feet in the morning and walk to Somerville's Davis Square and back.
But the Alzheimer's is always there.
"Even things that aren't necessarily connected to the Alzheimer's stuff, there's always something that comes up out of that," Ralph said.
Sometimes it's forgetting what somebody had just said. Other times it's losing half a day.
Rogerson House was recommended to Leslie and Ralph by friends from their support group. At first, Ralph was resistant. He didn't need to be taken care of, he said. He didn't need to be there.
"And that was definitely true. He did not need to be taken care of. He's safe at home," Leslie said. "But it's boring. So I thought he needed more activities. And company."
At Rogerson House, Ralph can attend discussion groups, go for walks outside, talk with friends over coffee.
"It's a sweet, lovely place," Ralph said.
Knowing that Ralph is at Rogerson House puts Leslie's mind at ease as well. Throughout the day she's constantly thinking about what arrangements she needs to make for Ralph - friends to call, pick-up cars to schedule.
"And then I'll think, I don't have to think of that, because he's at Rogerson House for the day," Leslie said. "I don't have to worry about it."
At Rogerson House, Ralph's charm is impossible to miss. On a recent trip, he joked with his table mates over scrambled eggs and toast, asking gentle questions about their lives. And with a full white beard, wire-frame glasses and a round face, Ralph looks something of an incognito Santa Clause.
"This experience is really helped by the fact that Ralph is really sweet," Leslie said. "A friend of ours said to me, 'you know, Ralph was the person who showed me how to be a good person.'"
The days still have their trying times. But those times pass. A children's book the Hergerts keep in their house says it best:
"Caleb the carpenter and Kate the weaver loved each other, but not every single minute."
The Tremble Clef's is a Newton based choral group for singers with Parkinson's Disease. Ralph started attending with an old friend who suffers from the disease.
"He has a very lovely voice," said Nancy Mazonson, director of the Parkinson’s Family Support Program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service. "He's had a very positive influence on the group."
Listening to the group, it doesn't sound different from any other community singing group. But many of the warm up exercises target enunciation and vocal strength - issues some people with Parkinson's have difficulty with. But the singing addresses more than just physical symptoms.
"One of the consequences of Parkinson's can be changes in cognition," Mazonson said. "Our hope would be someday there would be choral groups for people with Alzheimer's and for Parkinson's, like this one, because these are some of the things that really contribute to making life worth living."
Walking to the parking lot afterward, Ralph gave his take.
"It's much easier to keep something in your head if you can sing it."
Leslie begins preparing dinner as soon as she arrives home from work - 5:30 on a recent evening.
Leslie and Ralph used to trade off nights cooking. Now Leslie cooks, Ralph cleans. While many American families not dealing with Alzheimer's disease eat dinner in front of a screen, the Hergerts never have. They sit at a small table in their kitchen. Ralph has a beer; Leslie, red wine. On the wall hangs a photo of a relative's wedding that Ralph performed. His last, they think.
"We used to just talk a lot at dinner," Leslie said. "We would talk about things that were happening in the world, or he would say what he did and I would say what I did."
But now they can't. Or rather, Ralph can't.
"So now I just ramble on," Leslie said. "But I find that hard."
The Alzheimer's has taught Leslie patience, and she's much more accepting then she used to be.
"I still wish it didn't happen though," she said.
"Me too. But there it is."
For Ralph, Alzheimer's has robbed him of the person he used to be. It did nothing short of take away his life. Even though he's still just in the early stages, he knows it won't stop. And he knows what the disease has in store for him, too. There will come a day when he won't recognize the people he loves. His daughter, Jessie. Leslie. Gone.
Ralph knows there are people who would rather take matters into their own hands before the disease got that far. But that's not Ralph. During his time in the Baptist church, Ralph counseled people going through difficult times.
"I've spent a long time talking to people about trying to recognize hard truths," Ralph said. "At this point in my life, I'm in one of those positions."
After dinner, Ralph and Leslie go downstairs and watch "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" with Leslie's mother, who lives in an adjoining apartment. Then they come upstairs, watch a little more tv, and then they go to sleep.
- Ralph and Leslie Hergert
This segment aired on October 21, 2011.
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