Curt Morris has lived in the same house north of Lititz for 19 years. His wedding portrait sits on the windowsill overlooking a wooded yard that still holds the crumbling evidence of his teenage children’s long-ago fort.
Curt appreciates what he can see and touch right now: the picturesque backyard creek framed by spring greenery, bluebirds flitting to a feeder on the deck, the comforting weight of his faithful little dog, Paisley, in his lap.
But memories of both the distant past and earlier this morning — monumental and mundane, the best moments of his life — slip farther away.
Curt recently looked around and asked his family, “What is this place?”
He was talking about his home.
Alzheimer’s disease is most often associated with older people, but it struck Curt, a popular Warwick High School social studies teacher and father of two, not in the twilight of life but in its prime.
Alzheimer’s can affect anyone, at any age, but younger-onset such as Curt’s is uncommon. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that just 5 percent of the 5 million Americans with the disease are diagnosed before age 65.
Curt’s diagnosis at age 46 shocked his family, students and colleagues. Despite his dedication to students and passion for teaching, Curt was forced to retire just before Thanksgiving 2010, when he could no longer grade tests.
“You would always find people in his room,” former Warwick biology teacher Scott Galen says of his friend. “People were drawn to him.”
Curt has regressed quickly since he left the classroom. Those two teenagers, Tyler and Madi, are nice kids, he remarked the other day. He was pleasantly surprised to learn, again, that he is their father.
The woman sitting next to him is another mystery.
Sandy Morris works full time as a special-education teacher at the high school. In the evenings, she keeps up with her teens’ activities and takes care of her house and the husband she is slowly losing.
Sandy handles her family’s growing challenges with a sense of humor and the same two stalwarts that have always sustained her: faith and dark chocolate.
Even so, she realizes the grim truth that she soon may be paying for two college tuitions and a nursing home at the same time.
The Morrises, who met through Curt’s college roommate, will mark their 25th anniversary Tuesday. But in the past few months, Curt has forgotten that Sandy is his wife.
“We’re not married, right?” Sandy says. “I’m just the sweet girl who hangs out with you.”
Curt nods slowly, a faraway look in his eyes.
Odd behavior — and an answer
Curt, now 50, started showing signs of odd behavior about two years before his diagnosis.
“There were lots of quirky things,” Sandy says. “He would park the car, but he wouldn’t know where it was.”
Curt played the drums, and suddenly his timing was off. He couldn’t remember how to turn on his car headlights. On a camping trip, he struggled to pitch the same simple pop-up tent his family had used for years.
“He kept saying he was losing his mind,” Sandy says. “But nobody believed him.”
As a teacher, Curt was tough, but with an engaging sense of humor. The combination earned him frequent year-end thank-you notes from students. A rabid Eagles fan, he delighted in mocking Cowboys fans who had the misfortune of entering his classroom.
“The first time I ever met (Curt), he pretty much verbally accosted me,” says Cowboys fan Galen, now assistant principal at Ephrata High School. “We were fast friends ever since.”
Warwick lead social studies teacher Nick DeRosa, whose classroom was across the hall, says Curt’s dedication showed in his early arrivals and late departures.
“He was beloved,” DeRosa says. “Students saw him as a down-to-earth guy who they could talk to and relate to.”
For a while, Curt’s humor helped mask his faltering memory during daily lessons. But he increasingly needed Sandy’s help tackling job-related paperwork.
Doctors first thought Curt might have sleep apnea, which can affect memory. Dementia seemed like a remote possibility because of his age.
But, Sandy says. “I had a horrible sinking feeling that I knew what it was.”
Curt’s family, including his parents and five siblings, has no history of Alzheimer’s.
On the surface, Curt was mostly stoic about the diagnosis, Sandy says, but he realized and dreaded what was to come. She preferred knowing the truth over imagining the possibilities.
“Something was wrong,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what, but I knew it would be bad. (The diagnosis) was horrifying, but I was relieved to have a name for it.”
Within weeks, Curt decided to retire from his teaching job of 15 years.
Sandy stood at his side when he announced to his students that he would not return after Thanksgiving break.
‘It just takes away who you are’
These days Curt recalls snippets of his childhood in small-town Ohio more easily than what happened hours earlier.
But Alzheimer’s affects much more than Curt’s memory. He has trouble sitting in a chair, holding a fork, buckling a seatbelt, using the bathroom or pulling up the covers in bed.
Curt is often confused and sometimes agitated. Few things hold his interest. His emotions have disappeared down what Sandy calls a “black hole.”
“(Alzheimer’s) just takes away who you are,” she says.
All funds raised will go to Curt Morris’ family for his medical and daily living expenses.
Curt used to enjoy hikes, concerts and sporting events. Now he rarely leaves the house, except for a quick trip to Target or stroll with the dog. He has a hard time walking, and Sandy is afraid of losing him in a crowd.
Friends, volunteers and a caregiver stay with Curt during the day. Sandy leaves him alone only to take a rare walk around the block by herself. If a problem came up, he wouldn’t know what to do.
The Morrises have no nearby family. Sandy, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., tried a support group, but she couldn’t relate to the other, decades-older spouses, who were retired, with grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Sandy is raising two active teens. Tyler plays baseball at Virginia’s Liberty University, where he is a sophomore. Madi is a Warwick senior who plays lacrosse.
The community has surrounded the Morrises with another kind of family. Neighbors mow the lawn and shovel the driveway. People drop off meals and gift cards. Anonymous former students pay the family’s restaurant tabs.
“People know the family,” DeRosa says. “They’re very caring and giving, and I think people want to give back.”
Tyler’s basketball team at Warwick raised almost $10,000 for the family. Since Curt is physically healthy, Sandy must pay out-of-pocket for in-home care and later, likely a nursing home.
“You would not believe the kindness and goodness of people,” she says.
A new normal
Alzheimer’s is always a tragedy, says Candy Yingling, education and outreach coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Pennsylvania Chapter.
But the challenges are amplified and especially cruel for younger families.
The person with Alzheimer’s loses abilities and independence. Caregiving spouses may grow exhausted and resentful. Teenage children often shoulder more responsibility, at the expense of friendships.
“When you’re diagnosed at a young age, you’re thrown for a loop,” says Yingling, who has worked with the Morrises. “There’s always hope. We just live each day to the fullest.”
Research toward an Alzheimer’s cure is ongoing but somewhat stymied by limited funding. Curt has tried medications, with no noticeable improvement, Sandy says.
She, Tyler and Madi focus on appreciating “quality moments” with Curt. They and his friends still see flashes of his old sense of humor.
“He’s never been bitter about the situation,” DeRosa says. “His faith has been very strong. That helps my faith, just seeing him and how he handles it.”
On a recent evening, Curt greets a visitor at the door and tries to follow a conversation about his daily challenges. When Sandy places Paisley in his lap, he coos softly to the affectionate little dog, petting her gently.
“Are you saying I’m not normal?” he asks, sounding worried.
“You’re normal,” Sandy patiently assures him. “You’re funny and friendly. You laughed hysterically when we showed you ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ ”
Even so, Sandy is wrestling with a difficult decision. It’s getting harder to care for Curt. Will it soon be time to move him to a nursing home?
But Curt is her husband, and her children’s father. This is his home.
Sandy remembers it all, even if he doesn’t.
Women from Lititz and Oxford write about how dementia has affected family members.