WINNEBAGO, Ill. (WIFR) - Kathy and Bob Vigna have been married for 52 years. "We met freshman year in college," said Kathy. "He got his PHD in Biochemistry at Indiana University and he worked for a nobel laureate.
Bob's intelligence and athleticism stood out. He competed in long distance bike races and half marathons all over the country.
"The bigger the hardware you got when you finished, those were the runs that he ran in," said Kathy
While these memories are fresh in Kathy's mind, alzheimers stole them from Bob.
The Vignas aren't alone in their fight. According to the Alzheimer's Associtation., 5.8 million Americans currently suffer from alzheimer's. 10 million baby boomers will eventually get the disease, and by 2050 that total is expected to balloon to 17 million.
"The first misconception is that it's just a memory disease," said Manager of Education and Community Volunteers Susan Sklar. "It is a progressive brain disease. It doesn't affect just your memory. It affects your reasoning, your judgement, your ability to talk and think, to breath and eventually swallow."
The Alzheimers Association routinely holds family forums, Sklar says the number one concern from local families is the lack of specialists in the Rock River Valley.
"So what we're doing is we're leaving it to general practicioners, and they are not really qualified to deal with the patient and with the family."
Long before a doctor's visit, Kathy noticed certain quirks with Bob. "Things like figuring out a tip in a restaurant or how to change a light bulb. Simple things like that where he would scratch his head and take a long time to figure out."
This behavior progressed. And in 20-4 , Bob took a diagnostics test, just ten questions.
"It was devastating for him because he's an overachiever," said Kathy. "He has a PhD and he failed everyone of those questions"
An MRI confirmed the alzheimer's diagnosis, and a slow decline began. In 2018 Kathy took a vacation to Florida. Bob stayed at the Atrium facility. It was supposed to be temporary. He never left.
"When I got here it was so clear he was acclimated here, This was his new home," said Kathy
"One thing i learned early on is that you just can't cope with this disease by yourself." As a care giver for the Alzheimer's Association Richard Apple made it his mission to help people like Kathy and Bob
"That experience really opened me up to the to the disease."
Now retired, Apple took part in clinical testing which showed a contribuitive gene; greatly increasing his risk of developing dementia. "It gives me a chance to have discussions with my family and my friends to really line up what my support plan would be like"
Apple's mom also suffered from dementia; and he says he learned from her that in the face of this disease that takes so much away, it's important to remember what always brought them joy. And for Apple's mom it was birds "She didn't really remember the facts for birds but still had a love and fascination with them. So we would just go for a walk and she'd really be filled with joy."
For Bob Vigna it's his two sons. "He just lights up when they come," said Kathy.
Sklar says the key to caring for someone with alzheimer's is understanding their new sense of reality. "What does that mean? A husband and wife are watching tv and the husband has alzheimers and he says, 'Honey can you let the dog out?' And you don't have a dog. So what does the caregiver do? She gets up, go to the sliding door and let the dog out, because he sees a dog."
It's a concept that Kathy still struggles to understand, "I think what is sad for me is when I come in and I see him sitting in the activity table. He's just staring. He's not engaged. He looks so lonely. But that's my perspective. I have to keep remembering that it's not his. He seems to be happy and content"