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Taney County couple combats Alzheimer’s with strong bond

December 28, 2018

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — It’s been nearly 60 years since 18-year-old Ernie Cooper walked into an ice cream parlor wearing a baseball uniform and flexing his muscles.

The 15-year-old girl behind the counter couldn’t help but take notice.

“He was quite the catch,” Alberta Cooper recalled to the Springfield News-Leader , smiling at her husband. “He batted his big brown eyes. At the time he had dark hair and the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen. Now his eyes are milk chocolate, but they are still very nice. He is still my gorgeous hunk.”

Alberta eyed the reporter’s notebook.

Don’t put in too many details, she said. She doesn’t want “any of these old widows” to come after her Ernie.

Alberta and Ernie Cooper — known to friends as ‘Bert and Ernie’ — are living out their golden years in a home they built 13 years ago near Branson.

Sometimes, Ernie doesn’t recognize their home. He frantically starts packing and tells Alberta they are in someone else’s house and must leave quickly.

That happens a few times every week, Alberta said.

Ernie has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Their daughter and son-in-law moved into their basement a few years ago to help the couple, who are now 74 and 77.

Still, the disease has been taxing on Bert and Ernie’s loving relationship.

“At times he didn’t know who I was,” Alberta said. “That is hard.”

According to Jacob Simburger, spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Missouri Chapter, there are 110,000 individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia in Missouri, with about 316,000 caregivers providing unpaid care to individuals.

Simburger, who met the Coopers recently, called their story “one of love, hope and perseverance.”

Bert had a care consultation (a one-on-one meeting with an Alzheimer’s Association social worker to discuss planning and resources), Simburger said. And that social worker shared the Coopes’ story with Simburger, who was looking for a unique family to highlight in a letter to donors.

“I met with Bert and Ernie at their home and we instantly clicked and have stayed in touch since then,” Simburger explained in an email. “Our Care Consultant follows up every few months with families she helps to make sure they’re doing OK and get them plugged in with appropriate services as needed. So Bert will be connected with us going forward.”

Alberta said she really appreciates the information and support she receives from the Alzheimer’s Association.

“You need to get a support group around you, because you can’t do it by yourself,” she said. “I love him to pieces and I’m so glad he is here. But sometimes you just need somebody to hold your other hand.”

The Coopers celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary on Dec. 19.

Alberta said they began dating not long after that day Ernie walked into the ice cream parlor.

“He gave me a ring when I was a senior. We were going to get married. I even bought the dress,” Alberta recalled. “But I gave his ring back because I thought it wouldn’t work. We were just too different, even though I loved him.”

The two continued to date. They also dated other people. But Ernie didn’t give up on Alberta.

A few years later, when she was 20, Alberta and Ernie tied the knot. The young couple moved from St. Joseph to Kentucky. Their first home was an apartment over a garage.

“Our bathroom was so small, you had to back in,” she said, laughing. “You sit on the pot and wash your hands and soak your feet all at the same time.”

As she talked, Ernie’s eyes stayed fixed on his wife. The only time he quit smiling was when Alberta became emotional while talking about Ernie’s military service.

Ernie packed parachutes with the 101st Airborne in the 1960s, she was saying. There was a time she feared he would be sent to Vietnam.

Remembering that fear brought tears to Alberta’s eyes.

“Why are you crying?” Ernie asked.

Alberta wiped her eyes and reassured her husband.

“I have tears of joy, too,” she told him. “I’m just real thankful.”

Alberta talked at length about Ernie’s successful career as a staff representative in the steel industry.

“He was very good at that,” she said proudly. “They would give him the trouble cases, the difficult ones. He was like the peacemaker.”

She said later that it makes her sad that Ernie doesn’t seem to remember how good he was at his job.

The couple has two daughters: Christi and Marca. They now have four grandchildren.

Christi and her husband, Stoney Hays, left their home in Minnesota to come live with the Coopers and help care for Ernie.

“They don’t act like it’s been a struggle at all. They are absolutely fantastic,” Alberta said. “I can’t believe all the love we have around us.”

Alberta and Ernie enjoy living in Taney County. Their living room has large windows that overlook a forest.

“We just look out and see nature,” she said. “I just love being with him. I feel so blessed.”

They dance in the living room every day.

“It brings back the romance,” Alberta said. “He’ll sing to me. That is always nice.”

“I knew when I got married it was going to be forever,” she said. “He tells me so many times during the day how much he loves me. And he’ll say, ‘Why are you so beautiful?’ And I’ll say, ‘Because I’m in love.’”

There are struggles, though.

Ernie likes papers, Alberta said. He sometimes gets hold of the bills and puts them elsewhere.

Once, he took Alberta’s medicine.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “I don’t use that medicine.”

He doesn’t wander, Alberta said. But once he went downstairs in the middle of the night, woke up his daughter and asked if she wanted cookies.

“He scared the living daylights out of her,” Alberta said.

Alberta is continually trying to find gentle and loving ways to help Ernie without hurting his feelings.

“I had a stroke at 55 and Ernie took care of me,” she said. “I just feel like in our lifetime, we take turns.”

Alberta recalled a recent conversation with her daughter about marriage being for better or for worse.

“I said, ‘I don’t think this is for worse. This is just another day, another thing in our life,’” Bert said. “I still have him. He is so loving.”

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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