Mary Behne has a lot of angels honoring a life that ended on a horrible note eight years ago.
About 40 members of Behne’s family refer to themselves as “Mary’s Angels.” The entire group of angels has been chosen as the Owatonna Alzheimer’s Walk honorary family for 2020.
The walk takes place this Sunday, though there is no formal walk as there has been in the past because of COVID-19. Instead, people are being encouraged to walk on their own to bring about a world without Alzheimer’s and dementia.
As of late last week, Owatonna had 40 teams and about 200 people registered to walk. Everyone is encouraged to walk in their own neighborhoods this year.
Behne, who lived in Hayfield, died in 2012 after battling Alzheimer’s for about six years. It was devastating to her family.
“It got really bad around 2010,” said Barry Thompson of Owatonna, Behne’s son-in-law. “She didn’t know anybody for the last two years. It’s horrible.”
Thompson recalls Behne getting so frustrated with herself because she couldn’t remember things. It’s not uncommon for Alzheimer’s patients to remember things from 40 years ago and have no recollection of anything currently. “She would say, ‘why isn’t this thing working,’ pointing to her head and meaning her brain,” he said.
Behne’s husband took care of her for about three years before he couldn’t handle it any longer. They lived on a farm outside of Hayfield. She often would go outside and wander around without knowing where she was. The family had to take the car keys away so she couldn’t drive any more. “She was not happy at all when that happened,” Thompson said. “She did not understand what she was going through.”
After her husband couldn’t care for her, Behne ended up in a memory care unit for Alzheimer’s patients. At one point, she didn’t even know her husband. Thompson said she referred to her husband “as her dad.” In the end, she showed no emotion and was unable to communicate with anyone.
Thompson said it was especially difficult for the family to see Behne over the last year of her life. “All she did is sat in a wheelchair. She could not eat. We could not hold a conversation with her,” he said. To make matters worse, he added, sometimes she would take all of her clothes off in front of people.
Behne’s family didn’t know anything about Alzheimer’s when she had been diagnosed. “People thought it was part of being old age,” Thompson said. “Until you have a family member go through it, you don’t understand how bad it can be.”
Mary’s Angels have turned Behne’s legacy into one about helping Alzheimer’s research. The family has been involved in the walk for eight years and they have been holding a benefit in Behne’s honor for the past five years. Last month the family had a large benefit in Hayfield that raised more than $5,000.
In addition to the benefit, Mary’s Angels also hold wine tasting fundraisers throughout the year and they are at the Owatonna Farmer’s Market every Saturday. They also have placed chain canisters for people to make donations in Owatonna, Hayfield, Dodge Center and Mankato. In all, they have raised about $14,000.
Asked what fuels his passion to continue doing benefits, Thompson replied: “Watching my wife’s mom go through this. It’s really difficult to watch. It’s hard to watch what they used to be and what they are now.”
Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Thompson said he continues raising money in hopes of finding a cure because he doesn’t want his children or grandchildren to go through what Behne or other Alzheimer’s patients endure.
Thompson’s best advice for families who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s is to be patient with them, something his own family struggled with. “Some family members had more patience while others argued with her,” he said. “Everybody has to be on the same page.”
Dealing with Alzheimer’s will create tremendous stress on the family, Thompson said. He encourages family members to talk with each other through the ordeal.
Through the efforts of Mary’s Angels, Thompson hopes his family is becoming a part of the solution and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s or at least slowing it down.