Love lives on: Couple married 66 years copes with Alzheimer’s disease

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Sitting at his modest wood-top dining table, Bill Barr carefully folds 10 white tissues.

Married for 66 years, Barr has always carried tissues with him in case his wife needs them while they’re out. Now, they’re part of a growing kit of items the 91-year-old Winnipeg man takes for his daily lunch date.

Barr grabs one last item, a can of coconut water from the fridge.

For almost two decades, Barr has been supporting and caring for his wife, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the late 1990s. Up until five years ago, Doris, now 93, was still living at home and Bill Barr was providing the bulk of the care for her.

“To have her near, so I could touch her, just to be near her,” said Bill. “When I go over to see her, we’re in a different world.”

As the years passed and Doris’s condition deteriorated, caring for her and a home became a lot for Barr, so the family made the recommendation for Doris to be placed in a nearby personal care home.

For almost four years, Doris has been using a wheelchair and no longer communicates much, if at all.

Determined to continue to be by his wife’s side, Barr visits his wife almost every day. He packs lunch from his assisted-living residence and drives himself the few blocks to her care home for a lunch date.

Barr visits with her, talks about their children and grandchildren and things they did together in the past, and sometimes he will sing to her. He also helps feed her and even occasionally tries to coax a kiss from her.

“When the minister said, ‘For better or for worse, or rich or for poor, in sickness and in health,’ I meant it. And she meant it,” he said.

Doris and Bill Barr

Doris Barr has been using a wheelchair and has not communicated much, if at all, for the past four years. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

‘A lot of love in their house’

The couple’s granddaughter, Lianne Pereux, spent a lot of time with her grandparents growing up and said there was always something unique about their relationship.

“There was always a lot of love in their house, between them as well. My grandpa was always singing to her, dancing with her and making her laugh,” she said.

Pereux added that Doris had a different laugh just for Bill, and what they have is special.

“It’s hard to believe that 66 years, people can be together and still be as in love [on] the day they got married as 66 years later. It’s really hard to imagine that and, for me, they’ve always been role models,” said Pereux.

Bill Barr explains that his wife was different than any girl he dated.

“She had class, and that’s one thing you just don’t buy. You’ve got to have it or you don’t,” Barr said, adding that his wife cares about everyone and never says a bad word.

Barr joked that back in 1948, he watched Doris for a bit before finally working up the courage to have a friend call her for him.

He first saw Doris at a junior hockey game and after that, he would try to intentionally bump into her when she worked at the Eaton’s department store downtown. He finally won her over and convinced her to go to a movie with him.

“We were walking down Portage Avenue and I reached for her hand and it was there, and I haven’t let go since,” he said.

Barr with wedding photo

Bill Barr, 91, holds the wedding photo of himself and Doris from 1950. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Spotting the signs

By 1998, the family started to notice that Doris was having memory problems and was starting to forget things.

With a history of Alzheimer’s in her family, the diagnosis wasn’t a shock, but the family says early detection and treatment —along with Bill’s affection — has been helpful for Doris.

“Many of us believe that my grandpa’s love and adoration and devotion to her on a daily basis has really contributed to her well-being,” said Pereux.

“If someone is, on a daily basis, showering you with love and devotion, it’s really hard for that not to contribute to your emotional and physical health.”

The Alzheimer Society of Canada says there are an estimated 564,000 Canadians living with dementia, costing Canadians $10.4 billion a year. By 2031, the society expects that figure to rise to 937,000 Canadians.

Barr, as traditional as he is in his wedding vows, is pretty hip. He’s constantly joking with friends and family, he has an iPhone as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts, and he exchanges texts with the staff of his assisted-living home.

He knows it’s important to be active and mindful of his own health, and he plans to visit with his wife as long as he can.

“The best place I want to be is with her. That’s why I go so often to see her,” he said. “But I’ve got to be careful because my health has got to be strong enough to hold us both together.”

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Love lives on: Couple married 66 years copes with Alzheimer’s disease

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