Glen Campbell's wife discusses her new reality as an Alzheimer's caregiver

Glen Campbell's wife discusses her new reality as an Alzheimer's caregiver

September 8th, 2015 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Glen Campbell, left, and his wife, Kim, at their home in Malibu, Calif., in 2011, just before Campbell, who had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, embarked on a farewell tour.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

He calls me Mrs. Campbell. But he definitely understands smiles, hugs, kisses. He's physically healthy, cheerful and content most of the time.
Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell compares the plight of Bill Murray's movie character in "Groundhog Day" with the daily routine of an Alzheimer's caregiver:

"We feel like we are living the same thing over and over."

Glen Campbell, left, and his wife, Kim, during the 45th Annual CMA Awards in Nashville, Tenn., in 2011. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Glen Campbell, left, and his wife, Kim, during...

Photo by Mark Humphrey

If you go

* What: “You’re Not Alone,” an evening with Kim Campbell

* When: 7 p.m. Thursday

* Where: Grace Baptist Church sanctuary, 7815 Shallowford Road

* Admission: Free, but pre-registration required due to limited seating

* For reservations or information: 423-238-5330

From left, Brad Paisley, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell, Glen's wife, Kim, and Vince Gill are seen onstage during a tribute to Glen Campbell at the CMA Awards in Nashville in 2011.

From left, Brad Paisley, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell,...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The caregiver's role is one she's learned since her husband's diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease four years ago.

Kim Campbell, 57, is the fourth wife of Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Glen Campbell, the original Rhinestone Cowboy whose hits from the 1960s to present day won him 10 Grammy Awards, got him inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, gained him a popular weekly television series in the late '60s and early '70s and landed him movie roles.

His decision to go public with his illness in 2011 by taping his farewell concert tour for a ground-breaking documentary that was highly publicized in national media. As was the progression of his illness, his move last year from Malibu, Calif., to a Nashville skilled-care facility and the family's infighting over control of his assets, which was resolved in April of this year.

In July, Kim moved her husband back into their Nashville home. Despite his memory loss, she believes he still knows her.

"He calls me Mrs. Campbell. But he definitely understands smiles, hugs, kisses. He's physically healthy, cheerful and content most of the time," she says.

Indeed, Campbell's familiar tenor voice can be heard in the background, singing snatches of phrases here and there throughout the phone interview.

"But he can become extremely combative if you try to redirect him to something that he doesn't want to do," she explains. "I have a black eye right now. I know that's not him, that's not who he is; it's just the Alzheimer's."

Alzheimer's is an insidious, progressive disease that slowly robs people of memory, thinking and behavioral skills, ultimately leading to inability to communicate and function for one's self in daily life.

Campbell's illness has progressed to the point that he can't communicate verbally, but she can — and she has become a tireless advocate for Alzheimer's caregivers. She will be in Chattanooga on Thursday night to raise awareness about the disease and describe the toll it takes on patients and their loved ones.

"You're Not Alone" is being presented by Morning Pointe Assisted Living and Alzheimer's Memory Care at 7 p.m. at Grace Baptist Church on Shallowford Road. Her talk, which includes questions-and-answers from the audience, is free, but pre-registration is required due to limited seating in the church auditorium.

"For nearly 20 years Morning Pointe has shared Kim Campbell's message through daily care of those affected by Alzheimer's and by supporting caregivers. It is a huge honor to have Kim Campbell share her personal journey with our Morning Pointe families and the community," says Greg Vital, chief executive officer and president of Independent Healthcare Properties and Morning Pointe Senior Living.

Alzheimer's is an insidious, progressive disease that slowly robs people of memory, thinking and behavioral skills, ultimately leading to inability to communicate and function for one's self in daily life.

Her husband's diagnosis was a devastating blow, yet Kim acknowledges his family saw the warning signs in the months prior and remained in denial until the doctor's diagnosis. Afterward, the singer made the decision to go public with his illness right before his final tour, then invited filmmakers James Keach and Trevor Albert to document it. Kim Campbell and their three children (of his eight total) joined him on a 151-show world tour that was filmed for "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me."

"There is still a stigma attached to Alzheimer's, people are still embarrassed about it, and Glen's intention was to break that stigma," Kim says of the documentary.

"I think it did raise awareness about the way the disease progresses, and a lot of people aren't aware that it does progress," says Cindy Lowery, senior vice president of the Midsouth Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "I thought the documentary, in the time it covered, showed a definite progression. By the last concert, he was disoriented and it was obvious that should be the end of the tour."

Campbell went into the studio one last time to record "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" for the documentary, a song he co-wrote with Julian Raymond. Its haunting opening line — "I'm still here, but yet I'm gone" — captured the essence of coping with Alzheimer's in seven words. The song won a Grammy for Best Country Song and garnered the singer his first Oscar nomination in the Best Original Song category.

There is still a stigma attached to Alzheimer's, people are still embarrassed about it, and Glen's intention was to break that stigma.
Kim Campbell

Glen Campbell, left, and wife Kim are seen during the 45th Annual CMA Awards in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Glen Campbell, left, and wife Kim are seen...

Photo by Mark Humphrey

After the tour concluded in 2012, Kim says she was her husband's caregiver through 2013 until his move to the skilled-care facility last year.

"We were living in Malibu (in 2013). Glen's friend would come pick him up six days a week and take him golfing and that gave me at least five hours a day to have time for myself," she says.

The compassionate friend continued to take Glen for their golf rounds even when it got to the point that "Glen couldn't figure out which club to use and he'd just stare at the bag. He couldn't remember which ball he hit or where he hit it."

"Then it got to the point Glen just wanted to hunt lost balls in the bushes. One day Glen came home with 75 balls in his bag, and his friend came home with a bad case of poison ivy."

She says her husband took to writing messages such as "God is love" and other uplifting thoughts on balls he brought home. Kim says the sheer joy those golf outings brought her husband, combined with the kindness shown by his golf buddy, inspired a "golf angel program," which she is now working to implement. Her idea is to pair a volunteer mentor with someone who has dementia to spend time together anywhere they choose. Whether they go to a golf course or watch golf on TV, it gives caregivers a respite.

"I guess my message to caregivers is to look on the bright side of things," she says. "Make the best of a bad situation. Cherish every moment you have with each other. I want to tell them ways they can educate themselves and different options that are available to them.

"There is not a right or wrong answer — you can't do it by yourself, you have to have help."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

Five questions with Kim Campbell

Q: Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2011. But when did you actually see signs of the disease appear?

A: We started seeing signs in 2009. I took him to a neurologist and he said Glen had a mild cognitive impairment — sometimes that turns into Alzheimer's and sometimes it doesn't. We also went to a cardiologist to rule out vascular dementia. Glen had stopped drinking, but had a relapse in 2003, and I wondered if his use of alcohol might have contributed to the Alzheimer's. But there's no way to know.

Q: What were those early signs?

A: Glen shadowed me everywhere; he didn't want me out of his sight. But he would walk five or six paces behind me where we would normally walk side by side. He wanted to go everywhere I went; if I went to the grocery, he wanted to go to the grocery. He never wanted me to be out of sight.

He repeated himself a lot, then he began asking questions such as "Where's the bathroom?" in the house he'd been living in for years.

The final thing that really concerned me was: Glen played golf at the Malibu Country Club every day. One day he couldn't remember how to get home and it was just a short distance from our house.

Q: Whose idea was it to go public with his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 2011?

A: Glen's. He had just finished recording an album and we were set to do a five-week tour to promote it. When we got the diagnosis, we sat down with the record company, his producer and management to discuss what to do. Glen said he felt fine, he wanted to go ahead and do the tour. We asked him what's going to happen if you mess up? He said, "I'll just tell them I've got Alzheimer's." He was going to go out doing what he loved.

We worried if he made that announcement would people be too sad and stay away? Would they rather remember Glen at the top of his game instead of dealing with this illness? But the first show was sold out, standing-room only. From the time he walked onstage it was a love fest. It was like Rocky with a guitar. The fans became part of the story.

Q: With cameras constantly rolling during the tour, how did you balance bringing awareness to the disease yet protect his dignity and his image during the filming?

A: James Keach produced the movie "Walk the Line" about Glen's friend, Johnny Cash. We went to that premiere and loved the film. We had so much respect for James and the way he treated that story with such sensitivity. We trusted he would do the same thing with Glen. We had rights we retained if there was something about it we thought was inappropriate, but there is nothing we would have changed.

Q: Living in Nashville, do his friends in the music industry visit him?

A: He does have aphasia, so he's lost the ability to communicate verbally. We've got a lot of close friends in the music industry here and they come over occasionally; I don't take him out in public. He enjoys having his friends here. They'll come over and we'll have dinner, then they'll get out their instruments, play music and we'll sing together.