Gail and Harlan Mueller still enjoy smelling the flowers, although life has been a little different lately for these high school sweethearts. Gail was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease in 2012. The diagnosis was simply devastating. The couple felt alone, and was scared that currently there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. “In looking for answers, I quickly found caregiver support groups,” said Harlan. But Gail, felt excluded, and often asked, “What about me? What is there for me or for the both of us?”
Gail and Harlan learned about the Early-Stage program at the Alzheimer’s Association from another caregiver. While traditional support groups are designed to address the needs of care partners, the Early-Stage program at the Alzheimer’s Association offers support, education and socialization for both the individual with Alzheimer’s or dementia and their care partner. It was exactly what Gail and Harlan were searching for.
The couple was shy at first, and spent the first three or four sessions in silence. But then the flood gates opened. Over the last year, Gail and Harlan have developed close bonds and lasting friendships with the other members of the Early-Stage program. The once-monthly meetings, which started out in relative silence, now routinely involved hugging, crying and sharing deep thoughts and emotions. Gail and Harlan soon realized that getting together with their group once a month wasn’t enough. They craved more opportunities to socialize with folks who were experiencing the uncertain life they were living. “We were all interested to know how each of us was handling the changes that we were going through and making our lives more meaningful,” said Harlan. “We were really starting to learn from each other,” said Gail, “but we all wanted more time together.”
At the beginning of 2013, Harlan heard about Memory Cafes. He decided to do some research on the topic and talked to Memory Café coordinators in the Madison and Fox Valley areas to learn more about the social dynamics and best practices. He consulted his fellow constituents in the Early-Stage program. They wholeheartedly supported his interest in launching a Memory Café in Waukesha County.
Harlan approached the general manager at Panera Bread in the Ruby Isle Shopping Center in Brookfield, with a request to host a monthly Memory Cafe. After obtaining the buy-in from Panera’s corporate office, the Memory Café was launched in June. The Memory Café allows individuals with early to moderate Alzheimer’s disease and their care partners to share stories and socialize with others who have worries about their memory. As Harlan says, “Being active physically, socially, and mentally is good for the brain! And we all understand. We’re all in the same boat.” Gail agrees, saying, “We are on this voyage together. These people are my lifeline.”
Gail Mueller knows she has a gem in Harlan. He’s been her rock of Gibraltar for more than forty years. But when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, Harlan’s care and concern has truly transcended the scope of his immediate family. He is a caregiver extraordinaire, whose arms reach far and wide, to include the needs of everyone whose life has been touched by dementia or memory loss. For that reason, Harlan Mueller was named Caregiver of the Year for 2013, by the Alzheimer’s Association’s Southeastern Wisconsin chapter.
Gail and Harlan Mueller say "Checkmate" to Alzheimer's disease