Karen Weaver is a celebrity in north Mecklenburg County, where she taught Spanish at Davidson IB Middle School for 10 years before retiring in 2007.
When she is out with her husband Alex, whether at a restaurant or grocery store, former students frequently walk over to say hello.
In recent years, though, Karen usually just smiles. Now 70, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago and doesn’t recognize her students anymore.
She has a hard time finishing a thought, and she doesn’t talk much. Karen sometimes grabs strangers by the arm in attempts to be friendly.
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Alex Weaver, who is also 70, said he used to whisper Alzheimer’s in explanation. But he is becoming an outspoken advocate for awareness of the disease.
“Now I look people in the eye and say, ‘She means no offense. She has Alzheimer’s,’” he said.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder that attacks the body’s nerve cells and results in loss of memory, thinking and language skills. About 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and the numbers are expected to triple by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
A portion of that 5 million, like Karen Weaver, have early onset Alzheimer’s, which means they were diagnosed before the age of 65, said Janet LeClair of The Ivey, a day care for adults with memory issues near the SouthPark mall.
The effects of the disease were portrayed in the movie “Still Alice,” which was released in December. Actress Julianne Moore won an Academy Award in February for her role as Alice Howland, a linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age 50.
Like Moore’s character, Weaver was known for her skill with language. She grew up in the Midwest and became fluent in Spanish after studying at a university in Mexico City for a year.
She sometimes was mistaken for a native Spanish speaker, Alex said.
The Weavers met in 1969 through mutual friends, and they were engaged within six weeks and married within six months. Their life of adventure included international travel and living in several U.S. cities. Karen loved to garden and fish, and she made friends easily.
Alex got a job with Karen’s dad, who worked in heavy equipment sales. He made a career of it, and the Weavers moved to Huntersville with their two children 27 years ago.
Karen began checking out schools for their son and daughter, and after visiting Alexander Middle School and mentioning that she was a teacher, she had a job there herself. She soon moved to Davidson IB Middle, where she finished her career.
In her last years there, Alex said Karen had trouble figuring out the electronic grading system. Sometimes she’d misplace things or forget how to use the copier at school.
Medical professionals told them a little forgetfulness was part of aging.
In the year after Karen retired, Alex began to wonder if there was more going on. One sign was her making a left turn in front of an oncoming truck that the passenger felt was much too close of a call.
Then, Karen didn’t return Alex’s call as she was driving to Tennessee to visit their daughter, a trip she’d made many times before.
“I was getting concerned,” he said. When Karen finally answered, she told him she’d had some problems but had gotten back on the highway.
It turned out that she’d taken a wrong turn south toward Spartanburg, S.C., then made her way north on back roads by repeatedly stopping and asking for directions.
The Weavers began visiting a neurosurgeon every six months. In 2010, at age 63, Karen was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
‘Meant to be together’
Early onset Alzheimer’s can progress more quickly than Alzheimer’s in seniors, and it tends to affect women more, LeClair said. In the past two years, Alex, who also has retired, has had to take over all household duties.
Life, he said, became buttoned down. He now sees his role as the single parent of a daughter between the ages 4 and 8.
“It took a long time for me to wrap my head around she is not the woman I married,” he said.
Alex wants to keep Karen at home as long as possible.
He’s done everything from rearrange their kitchen to work with a stylist to create a shorter hairstyle for Karen that he can fix. He plans meals and goes grocery shopping and has childproofed their home for Karen’s safety.
“Never in my life have I contemplated getting up in the morning and doing something with my wife’s hair,” Alex said. “I never envisioned that I was going to be a caregiver, ever.”
Alex now works part-time with several businesses to “build an additional nest egg,” and Karen spends two days a week at The Ivey.
“What stands out is how she has girlfriends,” LeClair said. “You’ll see Karen having such a good time with them.”
Alex said the Ivey has provided him with resources and a place where Karen can get out and be herself. While she may not have the mental lifestyle she once had, Karen is healthy and has a physical lifestyle, he said.
He said buying long-term supplemental health insurance can be key – residential care facilities for people with memory issues can cost more than $70,000 a year. LeClair said that between 12 percent and 13 percent of the families they work with have long-term care insurance, and “they are very thankful that they do.”
Alex hoped for a while that Karen’s condition was not Alzheimer’s, and he wishes he had accepted her diagnosis. He said that even though their marriage and lives have changed in ways that he never saw coming, he would marry Karen again.
“I believe we were meant to be together,” he said. “I know that she would take as good care of me as I am of her, and she’d be trying to find a cure, too.”
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marty? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about The Ivey, visit www.theivey.com.