RENO — At age 55, with no family history of the disease, Susan Dugan began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease in 2006.
Her colleagues at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Reno were the first to notice something was wrong and mentioned their concerns to her husband, Paul Dugan, superintendent of the Washoe County School District.
“They said she was forgetting things,” Dugan said. “She’d forget she’d done a lesson plan, and she’d come back and do the same one again. Then she started getting lost when she was driving home.”
During the next four years, her condition worsened. To care for his wife, Dugan announced in January that he would retire July 31, closing his 26 years of service in the county as a teacher, principal and administrator.
Dugan plans on becoming an education consultant, giving him time to visit his wife at The Court at Reno, a facility that cares for Alzheimer’s patients.
Dugan decided to take her there about three months ago, after she wandered from their home one day and ended up at the house of a neighbor.
“In the beginning, you think, ‘OK, maybe we can deal with this all right,'” Dugan said of the early stage of the disease. “I found a wonderful organization called Right At Home. They exist strictly to help people like me who need someone to stay with a person while they’re at work or whatever. That helped until things got progressively worse.”
Dugan said his wife’s condition has deteriorated more rapidly in the past year than in the previous three.
“It got to the point where I knew she needed 24-hour care, and that’s when I made the decision — and it was a terrible decision to have to make — to put her in the Alzheimer’s care facility. It was a hard decision, but I think it was the right one.”
Dugan said his wife’s disorientation and apprehension of people she didn’t recognize sometimes caused her to react violently.
“The violence has been minimal so far, and it’s violence out of fear and frustration caused in part by not really knowing what she’s thinking. So we think we’re helping her; but in her mind, we may not be.”
Dugan said it has been hard on their only child, James, a 27-year-old University of Nevada, Reno medical student.
“But he has dealt very well with it, and he’s been a great help to me. He helped me fix her room up that first day we moved her into The Court, and so did his fiancée.”
Dugan said his wife recognizes him and their son as familiar, but not as her husband and son.
“She recognizes me as a friendly person, someone she’s happy to see, but she does not relate to me as her husband or realize the connection with James.”
Aug. 28 will be the Dugans’ 38th anniversary.
Both 59, they met in 1967 while students at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“I hate to tell you how we met,” Dugan said, smiling. “I had a roommate who was rather wealthy, and he wanted to have a maid. Susan needed extra money, so she worked as a maid in our apartment during my second year in college. I finally told her I had to fire her because I couldn’t flirt with the help.”
After they married and graduated, Susan Dugan, an art major who also became an educator, suggested they enter the Peace Corps.
Their first assignment was in a small village near Kandahar in Afghanistan, where Dugan taught English to high school students.
After Afghanistan, the Dugans were assigned to Norway, where Paul Dugan taught fifth grade and his wife gave birth to their son in 1982.
Susan Dugan taught art in Norway and later in Las Vegas and Lyon County before moving to Washoe County, where she was an English as a Second Language teacher.
She became a counselor at several schools. The last was Veterans Elementary, where her fellow teachers and friends began noticing the first signs of the disease that would steal her memory.
“That’s what prompted her early retirement in 2006,” Paul Dugan said.
In December 2007, the couple received the official diagnosis from doctors at the University of California, San Francisco.
“You don’t know how long this is going to last,” Dugan said of his wife’s illness. “They say it can be anywhere from two to 20 years; and I’ll tell you, 20 years scares the hell out of me.
“I’ll be honest, I’m hoping more for two years, because I don’t think it is the type of life she would want. I’m not interested in prolonging this, but I am interested in making her as comfortable as possible, and The Court does that.”
At 59, Susan Dugan is one of the youngest people at the Reno care facility, he said.
“Typically, Alzheimer’s patients are in their 70s, 80s or 90s,” Dugan said. “So here you have a relatively young-looking person.”
He usually visits his wife every day or every other day.
“For her, I don’t know if it’s really all that important, to be honest, but I need to go there because, you know, she’s still my wife.”