Her car, my heart: the distorting pain of Alzheimer's disease

Nearly everyone that has owned a car for any length of time knows that it is more than just a collection of nuts and bolts, sheet metal, and glass. Cars can take on a “personality.”  We have love affairs with our cars which we depend on so much and from which we ask so much. Who among us has not shed a tear and felt regrets when we see it drive away for the last time with a new owner?

My wife, Betty Ann, and I purchased a new sedan in 2000. It quickly became apparent to me that this vehicle was going to be her car, while I would be relegated to driving our second vehicle. She almost immediately fell in love with her car. She referred to it in the most reverential terms and extolled the car’s many virtues to all who would listen.

By the year 2013, the car was beginning to show the wear and tear of having traveled 140,000 miles. Now, my wife was displaying the beginnings of cognitive decline. The doctors at that time diagnosed her with mild cognitive impairment. My first indication of this problem had come a few years earlier when we were driving her car up a Rocky Mountain canyon. I remarked how beautiful the canyon was, and she replied: “At least there are not any dead bodies hanging from the cliffs.”

Little did I know that this would be the first of a salvo of unintelligible comments that would steadily increase in frequency in coming years.

I am a behavioral scientist who has taught psychology and conducted research on different aspects of human behavior for 50 years. I consider myself a hard-nosed empiricist, someone who studies behavior objectively. I took pride in the fact that I held my feelings and emotions in check, less such feelings might affect the way I studied behavior. Ironically, it now seems, my doctoral dissertation was on the topic of human memory.  I would continue to research human cognition over the coming decades. Little did I realize that my study of this topic would become so personalized as my wife slowly but inexorably spiraled into the depths of dementia.

How could this possibly be happening to the woman I loved? The person I had gone through graduate school with? The person who fulfilled a 25-year dream and earned a law degree at age 54? Who passed the bar exam and worked as an attorney for CU Boulder?

One-day Betty Ann drove by herself to one of her favorite stores to shop. She arrived home late and worried. She explained that she had great difficulty finding her way back home and felt that she might need to ask a law enforcement officer to show her the way.

In April of 2014, we decided to replace her treasured car with a new model. She helped me, and we selected a steel black sedan. It was a beautiful car, and our feelings of loss in replacing her car were tempered by the fact that our son Michael needed a good reliable used vehicle. He lived in the southwest corner of Colorado about a six-hour drive from our home in Denver.

My wife’s cognitive impairment continued to increase, and shortly after we purchased the new car, her neurologist made a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Of her choosing, she would never drive again. She was 69 years old.

When my son would drive her car back to our house, she would smile approvingly upon its arrival. She could not coherently verbalize her thoughts by then, but upon its appearance in our driveway, she would reach out to touch and pat her car most tenderly. The new car had never replaced the spot in her heart that the other car had possessed.

Over a period of the next three years, my son made many trips to our home with her car. It always ran flawlessly for the 336-mile trip which included several trips through hazardous winter weather over two steep mountain passes.

In July 2016, it became necessary for me to place my wife in an assisted living, memory care facility. The anguish that accompanied this is difficult to describe. The day I first took her to the facility and showed her the bedroom she would now be sleeping in I completely broke down. The stoic, objective, unemotional person I imagined myself was inconsolable. Betty Ann became distressed by my emotional breakdown, gave me a hug, and asked me what was wrong. Her attempts to try and make me feel better only added to my feelings of incredible sadness. It was the worst day of my life.

On my son’s most recent trip to our home, my wife’s old car performed flawlessly up until the last hill leading to our home. With 177,000 miles on the odometer, the automatic transmission malfunctioned, and the car coasted to a stop less than a half mile from our house.

I gently towed it the rest of the way to its former home. Perhaps, just perhaps, the car sensed that the woman who had loved it so much was no longer living there, and it could not complete its journey. After all, it was her car.

The objective, empirical side of me knew otherwise, of course. It was all just a coincidence. But somewhere deep in my heart, I wondered otherwise.

Rick Gardner, is a former professor and department chair of the psychology department at the University of Colorado Denver, where he is currently Professor Emeritus.

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