Don Reddington, right, and Jerry Bristol are “two brothers in arms.” The story of their challenges living with Alzheimer’s disease will be chronicled in monthly articles starting in February in the Methow Valley News. Photo courtesy of Don Reddington

Don Reddington, right, and Jerry Bristol are “two brothers in arms.” The story of their challenges living with Alzheimer’s disease will be chronicled in monthly articles starting in February in the Methow Valley News. Photo courtesy of Don Reddington

Local collaboration will help Don Reddington tell his personal story

By Laurelle Walsh

Don Reddington is a man with a mission: to help people learn about the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on the patient, their family and the community.

In collaboration with co-author Raleigh Bowden, Reddington is embarking on a series of columns titled “Living with Alzheimer’s,” written from his — a person with Alzheimer’s — point of view, that will appear monthly in the Methow Valley News.

“I don’t want to give up life,” Reddington said. “I accept what’s going on. I tell people that I’m losing my memory.”

Reddington is remarkably open about having the disease, but both he and Bowden said they have been struck by how many people are in denial about it. “People delay going to the doctor because they are afraid to hear the truth,” said Bowden, herself a retired physician.

“The goal [of this series] is to help educate our community and address some concerns of patients and care giving,” Reddington wrote in an introduction to “Living with Alzheimer’s.” “We want to emphasize that a big barrier to quality of life is the denial of the patient and those around him or her, and a lack of open, healthy discussions.”

Not long after receiving the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, Reddington became close friends with Jerry Bristol, another valley resident living with a later stage of the disease. Reddington wants to tell his and Bristol’s stories in the hope of helping others cope with the disease.

The disease and the people it affects is getting a lot of media attention these days due to the recent releases of two films: the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which follows the music legend on a farewell tour after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis; and Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore, about a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 50.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia in the United States, affecting more than 5 million people nationwide, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The number of Americans with AD and other dementias will grow in coming years as the baby boom generation ages.

AD is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the only cause of death among the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.

Out in the open

Reddington, 71, and his wife, artist Ginger Reddington, live on a farm up Benson Creek with a passel of horses, dogs, chickens and a pet rabbit. He’s a gregarious guy who does not hesitate to enter into conversations with strangers. During his career as a CPA and financial consultant, Reddington headed up a large medical group in Tacoma and directed management consulting services for the Spokane accounting firm LeMaster and Daniels until he retired in 2006.

“He’s a smart guy, a numbers person,” said Ginger. “He’s always been able to work things out mentally.”

These days, although still quite talkative, Don has difficulty finding words when he speaks, and reading and writing are increasing challenges for him, Ginger said. “He gets frustrated. I can see what his problems are, but there’s nothing you can do besides help him find a different way of doing things,” she said.

Reddington initially went to his Winthrop physician, Ann Diamond, complaining of issues with memory. “We’ve known for about five years that something was going on,” Ginger said.

Diamond did some testing to determine Reddington’s mental function and then monitored him for several years, but eventually, Reddington told his doctor that things were not getting better for him, memory-wise. Diamond referred him to a neurologist in Wenatchee who did further testing. Almost one year ago, Reddington received the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Don, in his forthright way, asked if I would help him and Ginger deal with future issues related to Alzheimer’s,” Bowden said. In fact, they had discussed Reddington’s problems with memory even before he was diagnosed with AD, Bowden recalls.

Bowden is a retired doctor who now volunteers her time with the Lookout Coalition, a project of Room One that helps people facing difficult health issues, including dementia, she said.

Bowden said she and Reddington were friends first; now both Reddington and Bristol are Lookout Coalition clients of hers.

Reddington immediately called his three daughters after his diagnosis, and within a few days he and Ginger had drafted a letter to 150 friends and family members to get the news out, he said.

“It was amazing how many people said how much they admired us for bringing it out in the open,” Reddington said. He was also impressed by how many people have wanted to talk to him and share stories of family members in similar situations.

The idea for writing a series on living with Alzheimer’s came from Reddington, Bowden said. “I think the motivation to write this comes from seeing how he and his friend Jerry are treated, and wanting to help people deal with the disease in a way that’s more honest and direct,” Bowden said.

Two brothers in arms

“Seeing what Jerry has gone through helps me see what’s coming,” said Reddington.

Reddington and Bristol met about one year ago at Cascadia’s Christmas concert, Reddington recalls. When he found out that Bristol had AD, he made an extra effort to get to know him, and the two began going for walks and talking.

Reddington and Bristol are both armed forces veterans; Reddington was in the infantry in Vietnam, and Bristol was in Army intelligence in England. Because of their shared military service history, Ginger has dubbed the pair “two brothers in arms.”

Bristol has lost most of his verbal function, including his ability to speak and be understood, and the ability to comprehend what people say. “Some days are better than others,” said his wife, Josephine Bristol, “and mornings are better, when he’s well rested.”

Bristol also struggles to follow directions. “You can ask him to do one thing at a time, but no more,” Josephine said. “It’s very frustrating to him. He’s aware of his limitations and what’s happening to him.”

Bristol was diagnosed with AD about six years ago, when he noticed he had trouble speaking. “He wanted the evaluation,” Josephine said. “He thought something was up.”

He also has a family history of AD; his mother, maternal uncle and grandmother all had the disease. His younger brother, Peter, though symptom free, is currently participating in a three-year nationwide study of Alzheimer’s treatments.

Josephine, Bristol’s primary caregiver, says that because taking care of him is a 24-hour-a-day job, finding time for herself is one of her biggest challenges. The other is patience — not getting upset when her husband is unable to do something, she said.

She attends a caregiver support group at Room One, and sees a counselor for one-on-one talks. The Bristols together attend Aero Methow’s SAIL (Stay Active and Independent for Life) exercise program, as well as yoga classes. “Exercise is excellent for both of us,” Josephine said.

Adapting to challenges

“The spouse’s role is really important,” said Reddington. “You have to change your life … and work together to make a plan for the future.” It’s also important for both spouse and patient to have an outlet for their frustrations, he added.

“There is tremendous pressure on the caregiver,” said Bowden. “Care giving for the later stages of dementia is some of the hardest to do.”

“I try to let him be the man that he is, but I do get angry — at the disease, not at him,” Ginger said. “This thing is taking my husband away day by day.”

Still, the Reddingtons manage to keep a sense of humor and positivity about their challenges. “We laugh a lot about all this,” Ginger said. “When he gets hung up on a word or phrase I’ll say, ‘Give me a hint,’ and we figure out what he’s trying to say.”

“It’s important to know the path of the disease, what’s coming,” said Reddington. “There are things you can do to slow it down.”

Reddington says an active social life is important. “Don’t stay at home. If you have problems talking to people, go places with your wife, who can help with that,” he said.

He also emphasizes the importance of exercise and staying physically active. He enjoys mountain biking, riding horses, skiing and hiking. He works around the farm; after Benson Creek raged across their property in a flood last summer, he spent days on the tractor moving rocks and repairing damage to the land, Ginger said.

“I’d have to tell him to stop for lunch and come in when it got dark, but I wouldn’t want to keep him from doing it. He told me, ‘It makes me happy,’” Ginger recalls.

“I listen to music while I’m driving the tractor; otherwise I dwell on the disease if I have too much quiet time,” Reddington said.

Ginger is pleased that her husband is launching the “Living with Alzheimer’s” project, and sees it as “a lovely gift to the people of the valley. It’s his story. He wants to let people know what’s going on and how he feels about it.”

Although Reddington has written on a professional level for years, it is becoming increasingly difficult due to the disease. “It takes him a long time to write,” Ginger said. She sees her husband disappear into his office and spend all day at the computer working on the upcoming series, she said. Ginger reviews the stories and helps him with grammar and spelling.

“He’s always been detail-oriented, focused, methodical,” Ginger said. “When he has a project it’s important for him to finish it.” 

For each installment of “Living with Alzheimer’s,” Bowden will interview Reddington and record his answers. Reddington is interested in writing from the patient’s — both his and Bristol’s — point of view, about topics that matter to them, such as communication issues, financial impacts, and helping family caregivers.

Bowden will fill in details from a medical standpoint, and assist with final editing.

“Living with Alzheimer’s” will appear monthly in the Methow Valley News starting in February.