South Charlotte

Still in love and living with husband’s Alzheimer’s

The Rev. Peter Setzer, right, began to forget small things about eight years ago while Peter was serving as an interim pastor in Kings Mountain.
The Rev. Peter Setzer, right, began to forget small things about eight years ago while Peter was serving as an interim pastor in Kings Mountain.

During a pause in a music session one morning at The Ivey Memory Wellness Day Center, Peter Setzer told a story to the small group gathered on the porch. They’d just finished singing “Home on the Range,” one of Setzer’s favorites.

Setzer, 79, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, and he retired from ministry a year later. He now spends several days a week at The Ivey, and his wife, Sue Setzer, says that her husband’s memories of his pre-ministry cowboy days are foremost in his mind.

In his story, Setzer described a summer long ago on a cattle ranch in Texas where the movie “The Alamo” starring John Wayne had been filmed. Setzer said he was offered a small part in the movie, but he turned it down.

“It was that summer,” he said, “I realized I was called to be a pastor, not a cowboy.”

Part of my challenge has been how to accept that the man I fell in love with, whom I met when he was in seminary, doesn’t even remember much of his 50 years in ministry.

Sue Setzer

Setzer went on to a long career in ministry, including 17 years at the senior pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Charlotte and 17 years serving as senior pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran in Gastonia before that.

For much of his career, he wore a clerical collar every day. Now his wardrobe is black pants, black cowboy boots, and a neatly tucked in plaid Western-style button-down shirt.

“He is, in his own identity, a cowboy,” Sue said. “Part of my challenge has been how to accept that the man I fell in love with, whom I met when he was in seminary, doesn’t even remember much of his 50 years in ministry.”

Finding a new place

Peter Setzer grew up in the American Midwest, working on ranches and dreaming of working as a large-animal veterinarian. He enrolled in the veterinary school at Iowa State University, but while riding a horse that summer in Texas, he decided his calling was to become a pastor.

He finished school in Colorado, met Sue, who is seven years younger, while she was working at a Lutheran summer camp in North Carolina with his sister, and went into ministry. Sue, meanwhile, earned several degrees herself and enjoyed a long career in vocational counseling and seminary teaching. Both received honorary doctorates from Lenoir-Rhyne College.

They had two children, Joy and David, and settled in North Carolina. About eight years ago, while Peter was serving as an interim pastor in Kings Mountain, he began to forget small things.

Sue said she would sometimes retrieve his sermon notes from his desk because he couldn’t find them, but eventually symptoms of the disease began to cause him great anxiety. The church continued to embrace Peter even as his memory issues became more evident.

Some church members said, “‘We’re old, we forget things,’” Sue said. “They appreciated what he still had to offer, which was a great deal.”

Eventually, though, Peter retired from a decade of interim work and Sue made the heart-wrenching decision to move out of their beloved home of 28 years in SouthPark to Aldersgate Retirement Community on Shamrock Drive, where they live in a two-bedroom apartment.

Sue Setzer says she has learned to focus on what Peter has to offer rather than what he has lost.

While Peter has given up church ministry, the Setzers remain active at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Charlotte, where they sing in the choir. Sue stands beside Peter, running her finger along the page to help him keep track of the words as he sings bass.

The 231-acre Aldersgate campus also has given Peter a place to revive his former life as an outdoorsman. He walks in the woods at least an hour a day and has cut hiking trails, removed ivy from trees and picked up trash.

“He has said, ‘I can’t take care of God’s people anymore, but I can take care of God’s creation,’” Sue said. “Moving here allowed him to have a ministry tied to his core identity.

“It gives him the freedom to enjoy what is hardwired in him.”

Claiming life everyday

Peter’s diagnosis now is moderate Alzheimer’s, and at a doctor’s recommendation Sue began taking him to The Ivey in early 2016. The Ivey provides daytime care for people living with memory loss.

At first he resisted, but after about a month, she picked him up one afternoon and he announced that he’d had a “great day at The Ivey.”

In his typical optimistic fashion, Peter now loves going to The Ivey, especially participating in morning discussions and opportunities to sing. He brings a yellow legal pad in a blue zip-up canvas case every day, although he doesn’t write much down.

“He is the life of every discussion,” said Janet LeClair, chief operating officer at The Ivey. “There really isn’t anything he doesn’t like. He comes here with enthusiasm and is ready to enjoy the day and make it the best it can be.”

Sue says that The Ivey has helped her realize that she does not have to shoulder Peter’s care alone. A support group there, led by a professional counselor, has given her the confidence to keep living her life even though the trajectory of Peter’s life has changed. Now she understands herself as a “care manager” with many partners.

“I was in tears when we first came here,” Sue said. “I felt so alone, like the responsibility was all on me. The partnership that I had is gone, and I was grieving the loss of the husband that I had and the future we had hoped for.”

Sue is now working on completing a 200-hour training program to become a yoga instructor. She is doing her student teaching at the memory care center at Aldersgate – a place she calls “the hardest place I could be” because Peter may eventually live there.

“My fear dissolved when I saw the joy on their faces as they moved,” she said.

She has found at-home care for Peter so that she can make occasional overnight visits to the Oratory and Mepkin Abbey, spiritual retreat centers, and to see her brother.

“Peter and I want to claim life today and thrive today and all the days ahead,” she said.

Sue says she has learned to focus on what Peter has to offer rather than what he has lost. She pulls up a picture on her phone of Peter sitting on a couch with their only grandchild, named Pete, as they both read books before bed. Pete has spent almost every Friday night with them for most of his life.

Peter now reads the same book several times and is amazed when he finds passages underlined, while Pete, who is 6, likes to highlight “chapter books” that are like his “Papah’s.”

“There are just so many blessings,” Sue said.

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: martyminchin@gmail.com.

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