Beginning at the End:
Portraits of Dementia by Joe Wallace

© 2019 Joe Wallace

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Bill Zeckhausen

 

Bill Zeckhausen is an 83 year-old pastoral minister and psychotherapist. He was first ordained as a minister and then became a therapist, working with individuals, couples and physicians. He has dedicated his entire life to helping others. 

About five years ago he started forgetting appointments and having some difficulty with life’s routine tasks. Bill admits he was terrified and lived in fear for more than a year until cognitive tests confirmed his worst nightmare: he has Alzheimer’s disease. 

Bill worried that if he could no longer do his counseling work, he would have no contribution to make and his life would become meaningless. He became depressed and struggled with suicidal thoughts. Bill decided to tell his son and daughter about his desire and intention to end his life. Their loving and supportive response changed the course of his depression and his plan for how to live with Alzheimer’s.

His son told Bill that he understood his sadness and would support whatever decision he made. His daughter said the same and insisted on being with him for the suicide. Overwhelmed by their love and support, Bill decided to seek help from another therapist. During those visits, Bill was reminded of his years of experience helping others with depression. He became convinced that he could still contribute and live a meaningful life – just not in the way he’d originally imagined.

Bill recognized that his fear of the disease and his self-imposed isolation for fear of telling anyone, had amplified his anxiety and depression. To remedy this for himself and to help others, Bill “came out” with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis publicly. He told his extended family, his work colleagues and his congregation. He went on to write letters about living with Alzheimer’s to his local newspapers and lead discussions and Alzheimer’s support groups. This summer he gave a presentation with his wife of 61 years, Barbara, about how to live with and care for someone with the disease.

Barbara told me “We live each day. It won't get better than today and we try to find something interesting to do each day. It's a wonderful trip down memory lane and that's where all the best memories are at this time. We are grieving the loss of memories together,” she said. “We are grieving what is to come.”