LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - Caring for a loved one as they get older is never easy, especially if that person is your spouse.
Like any good love story, Jerry and Val Kenhammer's has had its share of twists and turns. They met each other by accident, literally.
"She hit a semi, broadsided the semi, bounced off the semi, hit a Volkswagon and her car was end over end, I was the second car coming at her," said Jerry.
Val walked away with only some scrapes and bruises and a concussion. "That's how we met there," said Jerry.
But it turns their paths may have crossed before then. They found out after the accident they worked at the same company.
"To me it was meant to be. Second, third date said she's the one."
Two years later, they tied the knot. And soon after came their two children and eventually grandchildren. They're now celebrating 45 years of marriage.
"She's always been there for me and everything else and we had our times, but that's the way it goes, you know, you work em out."
About 8 years ago, one of life's twists took an unexpected turn.
"The last two months before I found out, she started not paying the bills," said Jerry. "She was spending a lot of money on a lot of stuff, that's one thing they do, I guess I found out later, constantly spending."
The person Jerry had known for nearly four decades of his life was slowly slipping away before his eyes. They soon learned, Val had frontal lobe dementia.
Jerry said, "I had to see what it was all about because I didn't know nothing about it."
"At my mom's age of 59, I never thought that that's what, I never thought she had dementia," said her daughter Amy Marsolek.
The once active grandmother who loved to spend time outdoors on the river with family and friends or running and hiking around their farm was becoming a different person.
"Her personality was a 180 degree turn on everything. My wife, if you saw a picture of her over there, she always kept herself looking like a million dollars, looking good all the time, but then all of the sudden no make-up, it was just like everything turned around," said Jerry.
Amy said, "For me, finding out she had dementia was losing a part of her so it was really hard, we were in denial."
About two years after her diagnosis, Val lost her ability to speak and her family lost another part of her.
"The things you take for granted, she was talking all of the sudden she was talking less and she'd say one word and in your mind you're not thinking that's probably going to be the last time you're going to hear her," said Amy.
"The last word she said, that's 5 1/2 years ago, she's full Norwegian, she stubbed her toe, she said 'uff da,' that's the last word I heard out of her."
Jerry has been Val's full-time caretaker, doing everything he can to keep her at their home. "I try to make her as happy as I can."
"She has the whole house to walk around, enjoy, it's our home that she helped build, helped design and she feels comfortable."
He takes care of everything from feeding her to dressing her. "I know I lost her 8 years ago as she was so now you got to realize that's the person you have now and if you can keep her going, you have her in your life."
And even though she can't tell him with words, he knows she appreciates what he's doing for her.
"When I feed her it takes an hour, all of the sudden she looks at me like 'thank you' and then she's doing this and then she's thanking me by squeezing my hand. I know it's there. I know there's a person in there yet."
Amy said, "Changing her, brushing her hair, feeding her, looking at all of her needs, taking the screws off the windows because she was trying to get out the windows, thinking of all those things to make her safe in her own home."
Jerry has also had to think outside the box when it comes to her care. When Val could no longer make it downstairs to her favorite swing in the basement, Jerry built one in their living room.
For hours every day, Val is most comfortable in her swing. "Oh, she loves it. If you see her swinging, she just has a smile on her face, a half-smile so you know she's enjoying it," said Jerry.
"I think she's just so comfortable and I think she's more of who she is being in this house and having him here and having the stability of the environment that I appreciate what he's done for her," said Amy.
The other place Val feels most comfortable is in Jerry's arms, dancing just like old times. "She loves to dance so I dance with her a lot. I say I love her maybe 20 times a day and she still realizes what's going on. I have her right here, I can hold her."
Jerry knows life will never be how it once was. "It's one of those things. She's here, love her to death and when she wakes up in the morning with that smile, gleam in her eye boy it gets me going."
But he also knows, he'll be there for his partner in life every step of the way. "Till the end. Yep. I"ll be at her side till the end."
They almost lost Val last year. She forgot how to swallow and was not eating. They had to put her on hospice for several months, but she was able to pull through.
Jerry says it's very important for caretakers to take care of themselves too. He says there are days where he just doesn't have it in him, but he has a great support network of friends that he can talk with.
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