FAIRFAX – Born in 1940, Ken Norcross grew up on Walnut Street in St. Albans, half a mile from his future wife, Gloria.
“We weren’t very far away, but he didn’t get cute until we got into high school,” Gloria Norcross said.
High school sweethearts, the two joined at the hip junior year. They went to dances at Bellows Free cademy and ice skated at Coote Field Arena, just below the railroad tracks off Lake Street.
After Ken spent two years in the military following graduation, he and Gloria tied the knot on May 19, 1962 and were married for 53 years.
During more than half a century of commitment, the couple had three sons, a handful of grandchildren, full-time careers and an unexpected diagnosis.
For more than 25 years Ken owned and operated a construction business called Ken Can. Always good in math, in 2006 he began to have trouble writing checks for his employees.
“People start forgetting things when they’re older and me living with him on a day-to-day basis, I didn’t think much of it, “ Gloria said.
But when he couldn’t add simple numbers, they took action and had him tested.
In 2008, Ken was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 68 years old.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive type of dementia that causes memory loss and changes in thinking and behavior.
The disease damages and kills neurons in the brain, irreversibly changing the brain’s communication systems and function, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Although there is early onset, the majority of people diagnosed with the disease are 65 and older.
The disease typically begins with short-term memory loss, but the end is always the same.
“When he started realizing he was losing his memory, he would just be so upset,” Gloria said, “so upset to know it was happening and he couldn’t do anything about it.”
It was hard to see him cry because he knew something was wrong, she said. “It just takes everything away from them. Everything.”
Ken and Gloria loved to travel, often visiting Myrtle Beach with friends during the winter months.
Gloria described her husband as the type of person who gives a lot and never asks for anything. As one of eight children, Ken was the only person in his family to go to high school, working during the summers to be sure to remain in school.
When he had children, Ken became involved in Boy Scouts and often played ball with his sons in the back yard.
After the diagnosis, Ken continued to work, but sometimes he would “get to a customer’s house and not know what to do,” Gloria said. She stepped in and worked alongside him, helping with light work when he was not able to safely handle equipment.
When he retired, Ken spent his days in his personal workshop. “That was pretty scary for me, because he wanted to use his power tools,” Gloria said. “I knew that I shouldn’t really let him, but I was there every minute.”
“It wasn’t too bad for a few years,” she said. They continued to play cards, go to the senior center every Thursday and travel to see their sons and grandchildren.
But soon those activities came to a standstill.
He couldn’t remember the rules to card and board games. His driver’s license was taken away and one of his sons removed his truck from the driveway so it wouldn’t serve as a constant reminder.
Ken ended up watching television a lot, Gloria said. “I’d be outside working in my gardens and then go in and check in on him,” she said.
Alzheimer’s typically develops in stages. In the early stage, patients have memory lapses and problems with concentration and organization.
When they enter the middle and longest stage, individuals require a greater level of care. The damage to the nerve cells makes it difficult for them to express their thoughts and perform routine tasks. Their personality and behavior also begin to change.
“As he digressed, I tried to think of simple things like little kids puzzles,” she said of activities for Ken to pursue. “You’re always scratching, trying to think of what would keep his mind a little bit more active.”
Mental stimulation is helpful with preventing the disease as well as prolonging digression after diagnosis, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
These “temporary solutions” were difficult to find because I had no path to follow, she said.
Other than attending a course “Taking Care of the Caregiver” at the Shelburne Museum, Gloria was relatively on her own, learning about the disease and being the sole caregiver for her husband.
I took the course because “when you can’t take care of yourself, you obviously can’t take care of them,” she said. But it wasn’t feasible for her to travel frequently to the Burlington area for classes and support groups and leave Ken back in Fairfax.
I don’t know if it would have been better or worse, she said, to have heard personal stories and to know he could forget things that he’d known since infancy.
In January of 2013, Ken took a bad fall. He suffered from gait apraxia, which affected his ability to walk. His mind would race and his body couldn’t keep up, Gloria explained. “So when he’d be out walking, which is normally a slow walk with Alzheimer’s, he’d start speeding up and he would fall.”
The big fall complicated things. “He went very down hill after that,” she said.
Six months later, Ken was admitted to Franklin County Rehab Center for long-term, full-on care.
By then, Ken had entered the late stages of Alzheimer’s. In the final stage, individuals lose control over their bodies completely, needing extensive help with daily tasks. They lose awareness of recent experiences as well as their surroundings.
Eventually, they lose the ability to walk, sit and swallow.
Ken’s brother, William Norcross, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. Two years younger, William was diagnosed earlier than his brother.
People diagnosed with the disease live an average of eight years after symptoms become noticeable, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Others, like William who is being cared for by his wife at home, can survive longer, up to 20 years depending on age and other health conditions.
At the end
Alzheimer’s has a multi-generational effect. Family history with the disease can increase risk for future generations. The risk further increases when there is more than one member with the diagnosis, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Boys don’t like to show too much emotion,” Gloria said, referring to her three sons. “But they’re worried about themselves. Who knows if it’s hereditary or not?”
“It affected us all,” she continued. “It bothered them, to know that he’d been so active and to see him just declining and declining.”
Every summer, the family went camping and Ken would spend time with his grandchildren fishing. When the Alzheimer’s worsened, “it was hard for the grandchildren because Gumpy could always put the hook back on the line,” Gloria said.
“When he went into the nursing home, they had lost their father,” she said about her sons. “Two years prior to him dying.”
On July 25, Ken was buried in a flannel shirt, jeans and a tool belt. His granddaughter Anna spoke on his behalf at the funeral.
“Right up to the end, he had a sense of humor,” Gloria said. “The girls would kid him at Franklin County Rehab, when he could still talk.”
“He was always joking; he was always smiling,” she said. “He was a happy fella, a happy fella.”
“I would’ve liked 10 more years with him,” Gloria said. “But I didn’t get it.”
Alzheimer’s is the fifth leading cause of death in Vermont.