BIG RAPIDS, Mich. — Through Alan Beamer’s decades as a teacher in Big Rapids to his last moments of life following his fight with Alzheimer’s disease, his wife Mary Beth St. Onge-Beamer was there.
“I'd give him a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10,” St. Onge-Beamer said. “Wonderful, wonderful man. Good husband all the way around.”
The couple was married for 21 years. Their years of bliss were interrupted by a doctor appointment in which they learned Beamer was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was only 61 years old.
“We got in the car. He cried and I cried,” St. Onge-Beamer said. “We got home, and I remember him saying ‘Mere, I'm so sorry. I'm going to die.’ And I said, ‘we will work through it Beam, we'll be OK.’”
At the time, they didn’t know much about the disease or how it would progress. What they did know, though, is it would only get worse.
But after going on a family trip to Reed City, they decided to make a video, documenting what it's like living with Alzheimer's. They posted the four-and-a-half-minute video on YouTube, and it nearly instantly went viral.
St. Onge-Beamer never hesitated to care for her husband. Ensuring an Alzheimer’s patient has a support system is critical, according Dr. Tim Thoits, an ambulatory neurology division chief at Spectrum Health.
“Care-giving is an incredibly incredible task that we ask families to go through,” Thoits said. “And if you can get support from neighbors, family, church, take the help because you need breaks also.”
St. Onge-Beamer said it didn’t take long for her husband’s disease to progress.
“I wanted to help him, and you can't,” she said. “It was such an eye-opener for me. I was like ‘oh my god it is bad.’”
At first, it was difficult to grasp the change in their marriage that came with the diagnosis.
“I remember meeting with somebody and them saying, 'you have to decide, do you want to be his wife, or do you want to be a caregiver?' And I left so angry,” St. Onge-Beamer said.
Doctors say detecting Alzheimer’s early is important. The most common symptom of Alzheimer’s or dementia is memory loss. This was the case for Beamer.
Other early signs of the disease include difficulty completing familiar tasks, trouble speaking, losing things, and changes in mood and personality.
“Another thing that's important for caregivers is to be educated on the conditions so they know what to look for and what's normal progression,” Thoits said.
Thoits suggests caregivers establish daily routines with meals, exercise and medications.
During the holidays, Thoits said protecting a patient from feeling overwhelmed is also important.
Alan Beamer passed away after living with the disease for seven years. He died at home next to his wife and their dog Sydney Marie on April 21, 2017.
Though the disease took her husband St. Onge-Beamer hasn’t given up on helping others.
“Till my dying days I will fight for funding, I will fight for the people, the patients and even the caregivers. I will do that,” she said.
November is Alzheimer’s disease Awareness and National Family Caregivers Month. St. Onge-Beamer said no one should feel ashamed of taking on the role of a caretaker.