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In the movie "Still Alice," Julianne Moore portrays Alice Howland, a 50-year-old university linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease.

In one scene, she is giving a lecture and she loses her train of thought. The actress playing Howland tries to laugh it off, saying "I knew I shouldn't have had that Champagne."

But inside, she's ravaged with fear, crushed by the accelerated loss she knows is coming.

Cindy Beller, 63, knows the feeling all too well. Her husband, Don Beller, an attorney, died from early onset Alzheimer's in July 2010 at the age of 60.

"I remember Don had a job interview and he came home and was devastated," Cindy said over coffee in a small café in downtown Northville recently. "I'd never seen him that distraught. He'd been asked a two-part question and he said, 'I started answering the first part and I could tell I was rambling. Then, I couldn't remember the second part of the question.' "

For a man who had relied on his sharp intellect for his entire career, Cindy said, knowing he was losing his mind — literally — was heartbreaking.

"He knew he was slipping away," she said. "He was horribly embarrassed."

Being out in public meant one humiliation after another. Cindy said her husband would go shopping with a list of two or three items and he would either forget an item, couldn't make change or both.

"Once we were at Jo-Ann Fabrics and I wanted to go down an aisle," Cindy recounted. "So I told Don wait one minute. When I got back, he was upset and said women were talking about him. He said: 'They said I was drunk.' "

As a result: "He cut himself off from everybody and became a recluse."

5.2 million have illness

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that 5.2 million Americans had the disease in 2014. Five percent of that total, or about 200,000, are early onset sufferers — people in their 40s and 50s.

"I've read that it's the baby boomers' worst fear," Cindy said, "but we don't talk about it much because it's always grandpa or grandma or somebody old who has already lived their life."

Don and Cindy Beller were high school sweethearts, both raised in Northville. They attended Michigan State University; Cindy became a paralegal, and Don, who got his law degree from the University of Detroit, specialized in property easement or right-of-way law. They married in 1973 and raised their two children in Sterling Heights.

Don's memory lapses and repetitive questions started to become apparent shortly after he turned 50, Cindy said. The following year, in 2000, he was diagnosed at Henry Ford Hospital.

"They looked at everything from stroke to epilepsy to a brain tumor," she said. "I remember wishing it was a brain tumor because you can do something about that."

For three years, "Don would not let me tell anybody," Cindy said. Working in Troy at the law firm of Miller Canfield, Cindy said she would cry on the way to work, at work and on the way home from work.

"Finally I told my boss, and they were incredibly supportive."

'Excruciating experience'

In 2003, Don acquiesced and the couple told their families, and their son and daughter. While scientists are still studying genetic risk factors in early onset Alzheimer's, the Beller's children, now both in their 30s, chose not to undergo genetic counseling. Don is the first to have developed the disease in the family.

"We do have some of Don's DNA banked at Beaumont (Hospital), so if anybody wants to know down the line, they can," Cindy said.

In 2004, Don stopped working. He lived for six more years. Cindy waited until the last year of his life to hire help in the home. In retrospect, she said she should have gotten help sooner because of the toll it took on her.

"You become angry, resentful and you're worried about everything," she said. "On top of that, you are wracked with guilt, because then you look at what they are going through."

Don would ask where the pretzels are and she couldn't say in the pantry because he'd forgotten how to get there. He became obsessed with brushing his teeth, and he would become anxious if Cindy left the room. Even taking a shower was difficult for her.

"I consider myself very lucky," Cindy said. "Through it all, Don was congenial; he was cooperative. He didn't get terribly angry or violent."

By the time Don died, he had dropped from 165 pounds to 95 pounds.

"Alzheimer's took his life," she said. "With older people, something else gets you first."

After his death, Cindy began facilitating support groups offered by the Michigan chapter of the Alzheimer's Association (alz.org/gmc) as her way of paying it forward. She can't stress enough the importance of getting educated about the disease.

"For 10 years, this was such an excruciating, overwhelming experience," Cindy said. "People need to ask for help and they need to take the help."

mkeenan@detroitnews.com

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