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Heart-wrenching story of early-onset Alzheimer's: A husband's struggle and hope

A heart-wrenching story of early-onset Alzheimer's: A husband's struggle and hope
Posted at 6:24 PM, Oct 05, 2023

GREEN BAY (NBC 26) — Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia have a profound global impact, affecting approximately 55 million individuals worldwide. Contrary to common misconceptions, dementia, much like cancer, is caused by underlying diseases and doesn't exclusively target older populations. It's a sobering reality that early-onset Alzheimer's can strike individuals in their 30s or 40s, highlighting the urgency of understanding and addressing this issue.

This weekend, the Fox Valley community is coming together for the Walk to End Alzheimer's, an event aimed at raising awareness about the devastating effects of dementia. As part of our commitment to shedding light on this critical issue, we spoke with a caregiver whose story unveils the challenges faced by those diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and the profound sacrifices made by their loved ones.

Rhonda Sutherland, a dedicated wife, loving mother, and respected local teacher, became the face of early-onset Alzheimer's in the eyes of her husband, Rob Sutherland. In a deeply moving account, Rob shared his experiences through a series of personal recordings.

Rob Sutherland shares video recordings of his wife's rapid transformation as early-onset Alzheimer's took its toll.

"There, a little later, you can tell she was a little more out of it," Rob says as he's watching the video. "Things went south fast."

Rhonda first started showing symptoms when she was 52 years old, with an official diagnosis coming at the age of 56.

"She started to repeat herself all the time, she started asking the same questions repeatedly. Would answer the same questions like what time it is. As it turns out, she couldn't tell time. She lost the capacity to tell time," says Rob.

As her condition worsened, Rob faced the painful realization that it was no longer safe for Rhonda to remain at home, leading to her placement in memory care just before their 40th anniversary.

(Video Clip) Rob Sutherland: She died December 22nd, 2022... this was July 22, 2022, and they got her outside on a good day.

Five months after the video was recorded, Rhonda passed away, leaving Rob with lasting memories of her harrowing journey.

(Video Clip) Rob Sutherland: That gives you the horrors of the disease and where she ended up. And when she passed away, that's pretty much the condition she was in.

Rhonda Sutherland was just 66 years old at the time of her passing.

"And finally, the brain shut down enough that nothing worked. She forgot how to swallow; she forgot how to eat. And I'd like to think that it seemed at least that she passed away peacefully after a long tough battle with this dreadful disease," he adds.

During Rhonda's diagnosis, there were limited treatment options available. Today, there is more research and medicine that, if detected early enough, can slow the progression of early-onset Alzheimer's.

Rob Sutherland is sharing the painful details of his wife's devastating battle with Alzheimer's, not to shock but to inform the public about the harsh realities of this disease.

"Once people get the feel and understand that Alzheimer's isn't a disease for the elderly, it affects many ages," says Rob.

"If people start to understand that, maybe then they'll start paying attention."

"I would have loved an extra 6 months with Rhonda. I would have done anything for that. But that's what can happen now if you catch it early enough; it can certainly make a difference," Rob says hopefully.

Early detection and understanding of Alzheimer's are crucial in improving the lives of those affected by this relentless disease. As we walk to end Alzheimer's and raise awareness, Rhonda Sutherland's story serves as a reminder of the challenges faced by individuals with early-onset Alzheimer's and the unwavering commitment of their caregivers.

The Fox Cities Walk to End Alzheimer's will be held Sunday, October 8th at Fox CIties Statium in Grand Chute.

Opening ceremonies will be held at 9:40 with the walk beginning at 10:00.

There is still plenty of time to sign up. Click here to register.