As he swam, cycled and ran in the Lake Lanier Islands Triathlon and AquaBike event Sept. 27, Bill Wittel of Gainesville said one person was on his mind — his wife, Ellen.
The 75-year-old said he had never participated in an athletic event before and wanted to accomplish the feat to bring awareness to Alzheimer’s, a disease his wife faces every single day.
When Bill’s 76-year-old wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, he said their lives took a drastic turn.
“Your whole world changes,” he said. “Your world becomes smaller and smaller until it’s basically in your home.”
Looking back, Bill said he noticed the signs of his partner’s beginnings with Alzheimer’s, which stemmed back to her time working for The Norton Agency in Gainesville. He said she would come home stressed and even go into work on Saturdays.
“What I didn’t realize is that she was doing her job and covering up her mistakes,” Bill recounted. “It was a very stressful time.”
Bill said Ellen is now in the later stages of Alzheimer’s and is completely immobile; however, he said music has remained an essential piece for stimulating her mind and bringing her peace. Every day, Bill plays her favorite song, “Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins, which he said takes them back to their times walking along the beach.
“Music has been an important part of our lives,” he said. “We keep the music going. Every night we’d get in bed and watch YouTube videos of bands we used to love in our college days.”
For two years, Bill said Ellen lived in Gardens of Gainesville’s memory care facility, and recently returned home Sept. 9. Before the pandemic, he would visit her every day, but until recently, he said he could only communicate with her behind a window.
Since she has moved back home, Bill said his wife has miraculously started to thrive again.
“It’s like a rebirth,” he said. “She’s gained weight. She’s moving and holding a cup in her hand, which she couldn’t do before. She’s got total stimulation.”
Bill said Ellen was able to return home thanks to her “dream team,” a group of caretakers he hired to care for her around the clock. He said their daughter, Loo Hicks, also contributes to the 24/7 care.
“I really couldn’t do it without them,” he said. “It really takes a team to make this happen. It’s much better when you have a good loving family that understands what their role is and can really work together.”
Physically and spiritually fit
Since Ellen’s diagnosis in 2014, Bill said he has stuck with the mantra of being “physically and spiritually fit” to persevere along their journey. In addition to staying active at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville on Green Street, he used to walk three miles every day with his wife, from their home, past the square and around Brenau University’s campus.
For the Walk to End Alzheimer’s — a nationwide fundraiser for the disease’s care, support and research led by the Alzheimer’s Association — Bill and those who are a part of “Ellen’s Dream Team” will walk the same route Saturday, Oct. 3.
Walk to End Alzheimer’s Gainesville
What: Fundraiser for Alzheimer’s care, support and research led by the Alzheimer’s Association and held nationwide
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
Where: Different locations around Gainesville
Find a walk near you: act.alz.org
For Bill Wittel’s walk: Search Ellen’s Dream Team at act.alz.org
Any chance he gets, Bill said he looks for ways that supports Alzheimer’s education and research. He’s a part of a Beyond Dementia coalition, which brings awareness to dementia, a group of conditions commonly caused by Alzheimer’s.
His goal this weekend is to inspire people to help raise $2,000 during the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, which will go toward funding the Alzheimer’s Association’s programs and disease-fighting efforts.
While his wife lived in memory care, Bill said his friend Mark Green, minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, encouraged him to try out swimming.
“He invited me to Frances Meadows,” Bill recounted. “I swam three laps and thought I was going to die.”
Week by week, Bill added on another lap to his exercise. He eventually took on a trainer, Alicia Hunt, owner of The Sore Spot Massage Therapy in Gainesville, to help him stay active. Bill said one day she mentioned the Lake Lanier Islands Triathlon and AquaBike, an event which involves swimming 400 yards, cycling 13 miles and running 5 kilometers in under three hours.
“She never asked me to do it,” Bill said. “But I told her, ‘I believe I can do this; I just need a bike.’”
At 75, Bill said he had never trained for an athletic event. However, on Sept. 27, he completed the course in 2 hours and 37 minutes alongside Hunt.
“The whole purpose for it was to bring awareness to Alzheimer’s, but also, it was for Ellen,” he said. “She, as a matter of fact, was my primary thought throughout the race.”
Bill said people used to call his wife the funniest woman in Gainesville. Today, he said her humor still shines through, mostly with her facial expressions.
Although living with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s can prove frustrating and depressing at times, Bill said he takes the time to look for the little positive moments that make the day brighter.
If he could give advice to people who have loved ones with the disease, Bill said he would tell them to strive to be physically and spiritually active, keep family members involved in your life and get help from local Alzheimer’s support groups or organizations.
“When I look at her and see others who are suffering from it, I think of how brave they are to be to deal with what they’re dealing with,” he said. “The grief hits you every day, but you just have to take that positive step forward and make every day count.”