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Jan Nelson, left, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease five years ago. Her husband, Charlie Nelson, cared for her at home at first, and now visits her nearly every day at Rice Care Center in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

Every day is Valentine's Day for two Willmar men who care for wives with health challenges

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'You need something deeper to carry you through'

For Charlie Nelson and Richard Falk, both of Willmar, every day is Valentine's Day when it comes to showing their love in caring for their wives who are experiencing long-term health challenges.

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Charlie Nelson

Charlie Nelson's wife, Jan, is a resident of Rice Care Center in Willmar. For about the last five of the couple's 43 years together, Jan has been suffering with Alzheimer's disease, a progressive form of pre-senile dementia that impairs thought and speech and leads to complete helplessness.

Charlie is a daily visitor at Rice Care Center. He sits and talks with Jan and has ice cream with her. Sometimes she knows who he is and sometimes she doesn't. Charlie said the experience has been tough. But, he vowed to love and care for "Jani'' -- and that's what he's doing.

"When the novelty of marriage wears off, you need something deeper to carry you through,'' he said during a recent visit. "You have to get over your issues and bury the hatchet. She'd do the same for me. It's my pledge to God to take care of the one He gave to me. I'm accountable to Him.''

Charlie is well-known in Willmar as Mr. KRA. He's worked with the Kandi Racing Association for about 11 years, serving on the board and handling public relations at the fairgrounds racetrack every Thursday evening during the season. Lately, he's stepped back to let the younger crowd take over.

Charlie was working for a Boston publishing company when he met Jan at the Seattle World's Fair. They were married on Dec. 30, 1967.

Charlie, never at a loss for a story and a chuckle, said he couldn't have asked for a better wife.

"I think we had three arguments and I lost all three,'' he laughs.

Jan holds degrees in home economics, elementary and English and she liked teaching kids the best. Charlie remembers the time when Jan corrected his spelling while he was trying to write a letter.

"She said, 'Here I am an English teacher and I married the world's worst speller.' She got mad and bought me a dictionary and told me to 'look up the correct spelling yourself now','' he said.

Charlie said Jan's parents and her twin sister also suffered with Alzheimer's. Her sister was diagnosed in about 2003 and she died in about 2005. Charlie wondered if Jan might be affected. Within six months, Jan was also diagnosed.

Charlie remembers Jan had come home from the library where she volunteered after retiring from teaching. Jan said she didn't want to drive because she thought she might get lost.

"I said, 'no, no','' Charlie remembers.

Charlie cared for Jan at home for a time and later moved her to Rice Care Center. Charlie thanks the staff for the care they give to Jan.

"This Alzheimer's is one of the things that just happens and there's not much you can do about it. I try to get over here every day because if I were sittin' over here, she'd be over here seeing me,'' he said.

Charlie remembers the advice a minister once told them.

"He said, 'Whatever you do, don't both get mad at the same time.' There's a lot of truth in that. I just want to take the best care I can as long as I'm physically able to get over here and see her every day because she'd do the same for me.''

'It's not practical to think every day is going to be perfect'

Richard Falk

Richard and Audrey Falk celebrated their 50th anniversary in June. Audrey uses a scooter because she has muscular dystrophy, which weakens the body's muscles.

Richard has been active in Willmar for many years, serving on boards, councils, commissions and in other ways. Along with serving the community, he faithfully cares for Audrey. Richard said he and Audrey help each other around the house.

"There are things that Audrey can help me with and there are things that I help her with,'' he said.

Audrey says she really couldn't live alone.

"The thing is Richard has taken over all of the things that I used to do, one of which is cooking. But the thing that makes it so wonderful is his attitude that he is excited about it,'' she said. "He is a really good cook.''

Richard bought good cookware and cookbooks when he took on the challenge.

"I have cookbooks that would knock your eyes out. They are so wonderful,'' he said.

Audrey said they frequently invite people in for Richard's special dinners. She said it's not really comfortable for her to go out to eat because most people's homes aren't accessible.

Friends are important to Audrey.

"Longtime friends, as well as new friends, can really help strengthen a marriage and having friends with similar values really helps strengthen your own,'' she said.

Audrey first experienced symptoms of muscular dystrophy in 1962 but wasn't officially diagnosed until 1973. An accomplished artist, Audrey worked full time as an art teacher at Willmar Junior High School until retiring in 1991.

During an interview at their Foot Lake home, the couple reflected on the things that help a marriage endure.

"I think it's impractical to think that every day is going to be perfect," Richard said.

"That love is for the long term.

And "that faith is an important part of the journey because it gives you the strength and helps (you) to meld together,'' he said.

"I think that over the years Audrey and I have talked a lot that an important thing in our relationship is respect,'' he continues.

Audrey agrees. She said it comes from encouraging one another and their individual talents and interests, such as Richard's growing interest in art and her exposure to his idea of adventure travel, which she never would have done on her own.

"I just think that the idea of this respect actually will allow and encourage each other in growing," Audrey said.

"You grow too, and then it goes on because we are realizing that those values of faith and respect and growth have transferred to our daughter and her husband and their two daughters, and that makes us love and respect them more,'' she said.

"In turn it makes our love and respect grow.''

The Falks say their faith has also made them stronger.

"As you read the Bible, you are given guideposts as far as how we should live both outside and inside of a marriage and how you treat each other with respect and dignity,'' Richard said. "That's really the life that we have tried to lead.''

Audrey said there is nothing she can do about her condition, but she doesn't think she's ever been taught to pray for things to change.

"I pray for the strength and that gives me calmness. It gives me strength and I'm following the example of my mother because she had the same disease but never knew it. But she was a wonderful role model because my father died when I was 7 and I was youngest of five,'' Audrey remembers.

"She had to endure her oldest two sons: one in the Army and one in the Navy during World War II and the third one in Korea after that,'' Audrey said. "And I can remember the way she prayed was for strength, not to change anything. That's the way things were.''

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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