Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Minnesota man keeps running, writes book

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ESKO, Minn. — Ron Buerkle might not remember what you told him a minute ago.

But the 76-year-old Esko man remembers, with poignant clarity, how he and his wife, Deb, reacted more than seven years ago when they learned that he had Alzheimer's disease.

"In Mayo," he said, referring to the world-famous Rochester clinic, as he stood up and demonstrated his words in the sitting room of the couple's home. "I went and grabbed her like that (holding his arms in a circle). And we both just cried and cried. And it was awful."

Since that painful day, Buerkle's disease has progressed to the point where his short-term memory is essentially gone and he has difficulty verbalizing his thoughts, said Deb Buerkle, 75.

But he has met his circumstances with a steely, exuberant determination and an active fitness regimen that includes a three-mile run three days a week.

A recent visit to the Buerkles' comfortable, one-story home in a subdivision just south of Esko occurred the week before Ron was scheduled to participate in a 5K run in town.

"This Saturday, I'm going," he said, then made a sound to indicate speed. "Shooooo. I'm fast."

Then he chuckled.

Well ... not so fast as he used to be, Deb Buerkle said. "You're about 10 minutes a mile now. You used to be really fast."

'Started getting panicky'

Ron Buerkle, a small, energetic man with a ready laugh, had greeted the visitors with the bubbly enthusiasm of a favorite teacher, a public speaker or a successful manager. He has had all of those careers during the Buerkles' 56 years of married life. His eagerness to take on challenges led to them moving 22 times during that span, Deb Buerkle said.

He also coached boys' gymnastics, ran marathons and was a triathlete.

Has he always had such an upbeat attitude? Deb was asked when her husband left the room to put on his running clothes.

"Yes," she said wryly. "To the point of — you could kill him."

It was after Ron had come out of retirement and was substitute teaching in Anoka, Minn., that the Buerkles started to realize something was wrong. "He just started getting panicky about things," Deb said. "He's never been like that, ever."

The couple made an appointment at the Mayo Clinic, which led to the devastating diagnosis.

But it's always better to find out, said Dr. Amy Greminger, an internist who works with the elder care and hospice departments at Essentia Health.

"I personally believe knowledge is power," said Greminger, who also is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus. "Maybe there are medications that might be helpful for you. Maybe there are strategies that might be helpful."

Attitude matters

Both Ron and Deb took on Alzheimer's with a positive attitude that's also helpful, said Sara McCumber, an Essentia Health nurse practitioner specializing in gerontological health who is leading Ron Buerkle's Alzheimer's care.

"They are delightful people to work with," said McCumber, who is also on the nursing faculty at The College of St. Scholastica. "They're very realistic. They're not in denial. They're realistic about what's going on, but they are positive and are motivated."

Attitude matters, Greminger agreed.

"I don't think it makes a difference in terms of prognosis, but it certainly makes a difference in how you deal with it," she said.

Ron Buerkle always has liked challenges, his wife said, and he faced diagnosis of progressive, debilitating dementia as he would any other challenge. The runs are interspersed with an exercise regimen on the off days. He runs alone, but with precautions, setting out three rocks and moving one at the end of each mile so he doesn't lose track of how far he has gone. He also carries a cell phone in a holder, so Deb can track him from home.

Physical activity of some sort is good for anyone with Alzheimer's, Greminger said. For that matter, it's good for all of us.

"Exercise to lose weight, yes, but that's a lot more about diet," she said. "Exercise because it makes you happy, because it makes you joyful, because it lessens depression. Because it helps you cope with stress, because it helps you maintain your cognitive fitness."

'The Last Marathon'

Ron Buerkle tracks his fitness performance and follows a schedule written down and kept in a corner of the couple's sitting room. Showing off one item, he joked, "I keep this so I know who I am."

He was holding up a small book with the title "The Last Marathon" and the author's name: Ron Buerkle.

He started the writing project after being diagnosed. With the help of the couple's daughter, Liz Bottomley of Moose Lake, he finished it after several years, and she found a publisher, Page Publishing of New York. It's available at bookstores and online.

"His relating it to the marathon was that so many times in the marathons there are times when you want to quit," Deb Buerkle said, explaining the book's title. "And he came to the conclusion that he has to address this disease the same way he would address a marathon. ... You're going to have times when it's really bad, and you'd like to throw in the towel."

"Oh yeah," Ron agreed.

"And he's not going to," she said. "He's very determined. Always been that way."

Deb's attitude is a big part of her husband's ability to handle the disease, McCumber said. "I think his positive attitude and her positive attitude — I never hear a negative word from her. Ever."

Attitude and exercise have helped Ron remain high-functioning in spite of his memory loss and deteriorating verbal skills, Deb said. He still makes his own breakfast, does the vacuuming and cleans windows. "I call him my pack mule because he's physically so strong."

Although Ron's symptoms have worsened, the anxiety that signaled that there was a problem in the first place has vanished, Deb said.

Ron wrote his book because he wants to encourage other people who find themselves with a similar diagnosis, he said.

"There's things that they can do that I've done to keep going," he said, later adding, "Just keep fighting. Just keep doing it."

Added Deb Buerkle: "There's life after Alzheimer's. And it's pretty good."