Scott Venci column: Couple takes on Alzheimer's together

Scott Venci column: Couple takes on Alzheimer's together


Scott Venci column: Couple takes on Alzheimer's together


It could be said that Colette Kolstad was, at one time, one of the most influential females on the area high school athletic scene.

She was a track coach and teacher at Edison Middle School and Green Bay Preble. She was the athletic director at Preble for almost 20 years. She always found ways to contribute, from taking stats for the football team to helping to get an indoor track built at the high school. In 2005, she was named AD of the year by Bellin Health.

Now, if only she could remember that.

Kolstad was diagnosed with early-onset dementia five years ago, a disease that’s turned a once strong-willed woman into a shell of her former self.

People she’s met in previous years often are strangers now. She sometimes doesn’t remember her best friend, Jerry Olbrich, the former Green Bay East athletic director and her husband for the past 19 years.

Kolstad retired in 2005, and it wasn’t long after that things went wrong.

She had a difficult time remembering how to get to places she had been to previously. She started having Olbrich drive her to locations ahead of time so she could memorize how to get there.

When she went golfing, she’d forget where her ball was or which direction to tee off.

Kolstad underwent a neurological exam in 2008, when it was confirmed she had early-onset dementia. She was 59.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Nobody gets better.

Still, the couple prayed for a miracle. They wanted to believe a scientist in some laboratory would find a cure. They looked into experimental treatments and ended up in Madison to try one.

Nothing worked. In some instances, it only made things worse.

In April 2011, Kolstad had two seizures that left her where she is now: Totally dependent on her husband to take care of her.

Kolstad has gone through wandering stages. She can have trouble with her balance, and once fell and hit her head. The house has been child-proofed to help prevent accidents.

Sleeping also can be an issue. Olbrich will put his wife to bed, only to come back an hour later to see her laying there as if he had left a minute earlier. Other times he will wake up during the night and find her wide awake.

Olbrich’s devotion to Kolstad is obvious. Watching their interactions can make it appear for a moment that nothing is wrong. But it’s heartbreaking a few seconds later to watch a husband attempt to connect with his wife, who can’t quite connect back.

“You are just as beautiful now as you were 10 years ago,” Olbrich told Kolstad while holding her hand. “Look at that smile. Just as beautiful as you were when I married you 19 years ago.”

The two knew each other long before they got married. Kolstad, who graduated from St. Norbert College in 1970, was part of the original staff at Edison when it opened that year. Olbrich was a teacher at Washington Middle School, and the two had several mutual friends who for years attempted to get them together.

They finally listened. They dated for four or five years before getting married, the first marriage for both.

Olbrich used to call Kolstad a renaissance woman because she was good at everything. Hard-working. Loyal. Loving. Trustworthy. Intelligent.

They had so much in common. They loved to play golf, travel and read. They attended high school athletic events as often as possible.

Kolstad also was a coach and mentor at a time when female sports were getting started. She still receives Christmas cards and well-wishes from former athletes who she had a great impact on.

The two don’t make many events since her seizures. There have been a few attempts at going to a prep football or basketball game and a few more at St. Norbert, where her late father, Howie, was the football coach from 1960 to 1978.

“Do you remember who gave you your only loss when you were the ninth-grade girls coach?” Olbrich asked Kolstad. “Who was the only coach who defeated you in a dual meet?”

Olbrich raises his hand, and Kolstad breaks out in a smile.

“I did,” he tells her. “We used to laugh about that all the time. Your husband, who knew nothing about track, helped Washington beat Edison. You always complained because your runner had to reach back to straighten her bra strap. That cost her.”

Kolstad laughs, a laugh that brightens both her face and the room she’s in.

It’s impossible to know if she truly understands, but it makes you want to believe she does.

“I’d give a million bucks to know,” Olbrich said. “Sometimes the eyes are bright and beautiful. Sometimes they are half-mast and cloudy.”

The story she tells with her eyes is different at times, but Olbrich is her one constant.

He’s the rock, even if he’s torn up inside. It’s difficult to be happy when the person most important to you is deteriorating.

“I’m certainly sad,” he said. “When you have been with somebody as close as we have been. …we did everything together. Everything. We were hardly ever away from each other. The loss of companionship. Someone to talk to. Someone to share.”

He puts on a happy face in front of his wife. There are tears he sheds, but never in front of her.

Olbrich knows a cure isn’t likely to be found in time to save her, but he holds out hope. He has to, because it’s the hope that keeps him going.

He does his best to help Kolstad remember things. Olbrich has put together books of her life, rummaging through her mother’s picture albums to get images. There also are pictures of family and friends. He wants her first and foremost to remember that she is Colette Kolstad, and these are the people who love her.

Sometimes she quickly pages through the books. Other times she will stop and stare. Next to those books is one filled with big, colorful drawings. Page after page of artwork done in Kolstad’s hand. She was a talented artist, up until the day she had those seizures.

It’s now about small victories. Olbrich used to enjoy coming home to tell Kolstad about a good round of golf. That’s been replaced by the excitement he feels when he receives a good report from Curative Workshop, which provides therapy for Kolstad three times per week.

There was a sing-along there last week, and as one helper went around collecting papers, Kolstad looked into her eyes and smiled.

“This must be heaven for you,” Kolstad said.

The helper nodded.

“Yes, I enjoy this,” she said. “Do you?”

Kolstad again smiled.

“Oh, yes,” she said.

Olbrich often wonders if he’s being selfish keeping her at home, rather than moving her into a care facility. He just knows he’s not ready to give up his wife.

Maybe that’s out of fear. Or maybe it’s just good old-fashioned love. He has asked himself what she would do if the roles were reversed, and he doesn’t think long about the answer.

Kolstad would have been there every step of the way.

“I will attempt to stay with her as long as I possibly can,” said Olbrich, who suffered a heart attack in 2010. “Do I care if it kills me? No. She will be taken care of.”

Olbrich and Kolstad still go on dates when possible. The two eat with friends and attend plays or musicals. She sometimes even sings or hums to a song.

Olbrich took his wife out one night last week, helping her off the chair she was sitting in. He went and grabbed her coat, and slowly put it on her. He then wrapped her up in a big hug, her head buried in his chest, while they stood in the hallway.

He told her how much he loved her.

She may forget that at times, but rest assured she will always be reminded.

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