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home : current news : current news October 15, 2018

3/6/2012 2:05:00 PM
Couples' love story trumps Alzheimer's
Drew Berding’s devotion to his wife, stricken by early-onset Alzheimer’s, has enriched his life. photo by Kit Tosello
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Drew Berding’s devotion to his wife, stricken by early-onset Alzheimer’s, has enriched his life. photo by Kit Tosello

By Kit Tosello

When Drew Berding first met an auburn beauty named Marilyn in his high school cafeteria, he was won. He asked her out. She said no.

As he tells it, "I was a nerd. But Marilyn was so kind and lovely. When I saw Marilyn, I knew she was the one."

Back then, in 1963, it seemed nothing short of miraculous to Drew that he eventually persuaded her to become his wife. Fifty years later, Drew is now chalking up another miracle to the power of love: a remarkable breakthrough in his wife's three-decade-long battle with Alzheimer's.

Marilyn Berding first began showing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's, a progressive and incurable disease, at age 39. Drew likens the helplessness and frustration of slowly losing her to watching a helium balloon released in the sky, slowly disappearing and fading from view.

"As it gets higher and smaller," he says, "it becomes harder and harder to see. You say 'I think it's gone,' but then you say 'I still see it - there it is!'"

Six months ago, according to Drew, Marilyn was "essentially catatonic. She didn't cry or laugh. She was unexpressive." But that was then.

Today, he says, "She's animated. She smiles, giggles, moves her hand, makes eye contact, leans her head against me."

To what does he attribute the dramatic change? Every day, Drew drives to Cougar Springs memory care facility in Redmond to visit Marilyn.

"Each day as I drive," he says, "I pray, 'Lord, help me to show her my love in a way that she understands.' I give her hugs, affirmations; I bring her mochas. I pour love on her, and she's responding.

"I've always been demonstrative in my love," he says. But Drew feels that there's now something more dynamic at work - something at a deeper, more spiritual level.

It began when a bout with depression toward the end of last year led him to seek counseling.

"Pain can be very useful," says Drew. Emotional pain prompted him to take a spiritual inventory. "Marilyn had been my source of love, and I trusted her love." But, he says, when faced with her terminal condition, "I realized that I didn't trust God's love."

Drew believes that tapping into a higher source of love allowed him to break through to Marilyn. "Now I have something much more powerful to give to Marilyn. Someone once told me that the brain gets Alzheimer's, but the spirit does not."

Another friend told Drew, "When a woman knows without doubt that she is unconditionally loved, she can't help but respond; that's the way a woman is wired.

"However," he adds, "I've discovered that even when she doesn't respond, I still am totally fulfilled just by having the privilege of loving her. In fact, I think I'm more in love now than ever."

Drew and Marilyn's love story began in high school in Washington D.C., when Marilyn finally agreed to go duckpin bowling on a triple-date. Drew proposed on her 18th birthday, but Marilyn had promised her dad she wouldn't marry before graduating from college. She told Drew she would marry him after college, if she still felt the same way about him


Before they met, Drew and Marilyn had each made separate plans to attend colleges 400 miles away. As it turned out, the two campuses they had selected were only one mile apart - in Troy, New York. Drew attended Rensselaer Polytechnic, the country's oldest engineering school, while Marilyn pursued her pre-nursing degree at Russell Sage College. They agreed that they could date others, but neither did. Three years later, they were married.

Marilyn became an RN and worked for a time as an industrial nurse for a drug research company in New York, before she and Drew relocated to San Jose where he worked for IBM and later as an Silicon Valley entrepreneur. There they raised three kids: Stephanie, Ken and Keith.

Stephanie lives in Sisters with husband Randy King. She works as a substitute teacher and as a piano accompanist for many local musical events. Ken Berding is a professor at Talbot Seminary in California. Keith stayed in the Bay Area, where he's a director of mechanical engineering.

Marilyn and Drew have nine grandchildren.

When their family nest emptied, Marilyn added a BS in organizational business from the University of San Francisco. Together, both she and Drew earned MAs in counseling psychology. By that time, Marilyn was showing symptoms of Alzheimer's, but Drew helped her to remember her assignments, and she finished with a 3.6 GPA in graduate school-in spite of the disease.

Young couples often came to Drew and Marilyn for marital counseling. "We were able to help a lot of people," says Drew.

Living out a dream, they moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. Often they would go swing dancing or ballroom dancing five times a week. "Marilyn was good, really good. It was like she could read my mind," says Drew.

But Marilyn was declining rapidly, and Drew was wearing out. Stephanie encouraged him to move to Sisters, so she could help take care of her mother. Up until a few years ago, Drew managed with an in-home caregiver, before the move to a facility became unavoidable.

He makes daily mocha deliveries to his wife-along with hugs and sweet talk-and once a week Drew takes a turn feeding Marilyn. It can take 45 minutes just to feed her a banana.

"A man sets out thinking he needs to get his needs met," says Drew. "He doesn't realize that he's actually more fulfilled when he gets to give love fully. I've had the privilege of loving on her and I'm thriving."

He feels it's the least he can do for his beloved Marilyn. "I'm profoundly grateful for the many years we have had together. She's been an amazing woman. I've learned everything important in life through that woman.

"She's clearly happier now than six months ago. Now she's laughing. She's got joy."

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