When Jim White married Mary 42 years ago, he didn’t know what the future held; he just knew he’d be holding on to her.
The couple met and married in Roanoke, living there for 14 years before moving to Franklin County. They have two children: a daughter, Tana, who lives in the area with her family and works in health care; and a son, Daniel, who lives in California with his family and serves in the U.S. Navy.
Mary grew up in Roanoke and worked as a supervisory nurse at Roanoke Memorial Rehabilitation Center, retiring after 42 years of service. Jim grew up in Green Bay, Wisc., and worked in various occupations including the U.S. Navy, drilling rigs, river boats and construction in places such as Wisconsin, California, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and Roanoke. He is currently semi-retired, working three days a week as a construction superintendent.
Reflecting on their time together, Jim said, “We’ve seen a lot of country — Canada to Florida — and have gone to a lot of Packer games.” They have also hiked 6,288 feet up to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire and have served together on disaster relief teams.
Over the years, Mary enjoyed reading, biking and walking on the Greenway in Roanoke, shopping and yard work. She also has an impressive collection of bowling trophies.
These days she is more sedentary due to dementia. She spends a lot of time watching television. She looks at books and colors in adult coloring books.
Because of Mary’s dementia, the tasks required in running a household can no longer be shared, which leaves Jim feeling tired from being in charge of everything.
Still, he doesn’t complain, remembering how Mary, a retired nurse, has cared for him.
“She was taking care of me before we were even married,” Jim said. The couple, in their mid-70s, met while Jim was hospitalized and under Mary’s care.
Jim’s faithfulness in caring for Mary is a testimony to those around them. Eric Anspaugh was the Whites’ pastor for six years before retiring. He and his wife Bev remain friends with the Whites. The Anspaughs described Jim and Mary as “faithful to their church and their beliefs and always willing to serve.” Eric added, “Jim deeply loves Mary. He embodies those [wedding] vows. [In sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.]”
While June is known as the month for weddings, it is also Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. According to the Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures 2019, 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s dementia. Approximately 150,000 Virginians are living with dementia – a 15% rise from 2015. By 2025, that number is expected to rise to 190,000, a 27% increase.
The report states that, in Virginia, approximately “465,000 informal care partners provided 529 million hours of unpaid care worth $6.7 billion.”
The dementia journey at the White house in Rocky Mount began about 2016-2017 when Jim noticed Mary becoming more and more forgetful. He took her to a memory doctor who said she had dementia but didn’t specify whether it was Alzheimer’s. She took medication for a while, but discontinued it when it didn’t seem to provide results.
These days, the best medicine for Mary is love. In addition to Jim’s love, Mary has a couple of caregivers who spend time with her and give Jim a break from caregiving while he goes to work. Two days a week Jim and Mary volunteer with Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM), which serves the Roanoke Valley by providing safe shelter for the homeless, a nutritious lunch and emergency financial aid to those in need.
In addition to friends from RAM and caregivers, Jim is grateful to have support from their church family at Antioch Church of the Brethren near Callaway and also from their neighbors.
“We have a lot of good friends who do a lot of nice things for us such as bringing meals and staying with Mary,” Jim said.
Caregiving is not easy. Jim said, “I’ve got to work around her schedule.” In the mornings he wakes Mary up early to use the bathroom and then puts her back to bed. Three days a week caregivers help Mary with dressing, breakfast, lunch and into bed for an afternoon nap—Jim handles it himself the remaining days of the week.
Jim gets home in the afternoon. He also has to plan more for things like cooking and making care arrangements for Mary when he cannot be with her. His breaks come when Mary is sleeping.
After dinner, he and Mary sit on the front porch and play with the couple’s 8-year-old Sheltie, Kenzie, or watch television. He said Kenzie has been a tremendous comfort as she is always by Mary’s side.
Another resource for help is Project Lifesaver, which is offered at no charge through the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. Mary wears an ankle bracelet equipped with a transmitter that makes her location known should she wander. Jim said he appreciates the service and Deputy Stephanie Mills’ coming out monthly to change the battery. Mills said the program currently serves those with dementia, Down syndrome and autism and that the transmitters locate wanderers at a much quicker rate, which prevents search and rescue operations.
Dementia doesn’t discriminate. It knows no gender, age, race or religion.
“It’s just a disease that can strike anyone,” Jim said. “It can reach out and bite you when you least expect it.”
He added that if people suspect their loved ones are having memory problems, they should get them to doctors. His encourages caregivers and loved ones to “hang in there.”
As he looks to the future, Jim says he just takes it day-by-day and doesn’t plan too far in advance, except for their much-anticipated summer vacations to Maine.