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Former mayor faces Alzheimer's with wife at side

Scrapbook, therapy, medication help Rich Buchanan cope with disease

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Rich Buchanan, left, and his wife Judy flip through pages of a scrapbook featuring old pictures of Rich on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at their Bloomington home. Rich Buchanan, 78, a former Bloomington mayor, City Council member and McLean County Board member, has Alzheimer's disease. Judy said the scrapbook allows them to have fun reminiscing and celebrating what they've done in their lives.

BLOOMINGTON — Sitting in a chair in his Bloomington home, 78-year-old Rich Buchanan worked on a word search.

"They are kind of fun," he said. "But after 30 to 45 minutes of that, I'm exhausted."

"We're trying to respond to a generally accepted fact: Use it or lose it," he said. "I'll need to do this to slow down my movement to dementia."

Buchanan — former Bloomington mayor, City Council member and McLean County Board member — has Alzheimer's disease. He and his wife of 54 years, Judy, 77, shared their story to build awareness of the disease that slowly robs people of their memory, thinking and appropriate behavior.

Buchanan is at a poignant phase of the disease. It's been only seven months since he was diagnosed and six months since that prompted his resignation from the County Board, citing "health reasons."

The man who once tackled several issues at the same time as a mayor, State Farm employee and father now sometimes forgets when he takes his medicine, which is why Judy has taken control of his meds.

The human resources professional with the huge vocabulary now finds himself sometimes struggling for the right word.

The mayor who oversaw development of several subdivisions can no longer drive because he may get lost.

The outgoing political candidate now limits his socializing because he finds it difficult to be in a crowd.

He knows he has Alzheimer's disease and knows his condition will get worse.

"I know there is no cure," he said. Buchanan has battled anxiety and panic attacks that only recently have been controlled.

But the Buchanans are facing the disease together, as Rich does daily physical and mental exercises and takes his medication to try to slow the progression of the disease; as he has received physical, occupational and speech therapy and continues to see a counselor and neurologist; and as he keeps in contact with family and close friends.

Judy has assumed the role of caregiver while other family members and professional companionship caregivers help out so she can remain a member of the McLean County Board of Health and the Connect Transit Board of Trustees, stay involved in the League of Women Voters, attend weekly church services and go grocery shopping.

The Buchanans regularly look at a scrapbook that Judy made for her husband. The photographs, newspaper articles and programs bring back memories and generate conversation.

"That's good form," Buchanan commented as he looks at a picture of himself throwing out the first pitch at Bloomington-Normal Night at Busch Stadium in 1978.

"The scrapbook is so much fun for Rich, to relive some things," Judy said.

"We celebrate what we've had a chance to do," she said as they paged through the book.

Buchanan said, "The Lord is saying to me, 'don't be anxious.' He will give us things to help us straighten them out."

"It's not the end of your life," he said of Alzheimer's disease.

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Judy Buchanan helps her husband, Rich, as he looks for a Bible verse on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at their Bloomington home. Buchanan's faith is helping him to live with his Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Buchanan, a Clinton native, met Judy as they were students at Northern Illinois University. Following graduation, he spent six years in the U.S. Army Reserves, including seven months of active duty.

He worked for GTE in Kewanee and Chillicothe before he was transferred to Bloomington in 1966. Judy was a teacher. Together they raised three children.

In 1971, he was hired at State Farm and spent the next 30 years working as a human resources professional in the growing systems department.

In 1971, he joined the Bloomington City Council. He met Steve Stockton when Stockton spoke to the council representing neighbors upset by a city proposal.

Buchanan and Stockton became acquainted and after Buchanan was elected mayor in 1977, he appointed Stockton to the liquor commission. Buchanan served as mayor until 1985.

"We became friends," said Stockton, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2013. They remain friends.

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Rich Buchanan explains the system he uses in his word searches as his wife Judy observes on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at their Bloomington home. "They are kind of fun," said the 78-year-old of word searches. "But after 30 to 45 minutes of that, I'm exhausted."

"Rich was pragmatic and he listened," Stockton said. "I felt he was a good mayor because he had the best interest of the city at heart."

Buchanan said "I was proudest that I did a good job."

"Rich is easy to talk to," Stockton said. "He is curious and interested in a variety of things. He's just likable."

"I had fun," Buchanan said of his years in public service, which ended last August when he resigned from the County Board.

Three years ago, Judy began to notice that some of her husband's responses to questions were "unusual." She and others began to keep a closer eye on him.

In late 2016, Buchanan occasionally began to forget where to make turns as he was driving.

"That was one of the first times I noticed that something wasn't clear," Buchanan said. "Twenty years ago, you couldn't name a subdivision that I didn't know about."

When Buchanan called Judy from an unknown driveway in Bloomington-Normal and asked Judy whether he was home, they knew they needed to do something.

Buchanan recognized that his short-term memory and ability to come up with the right words were declining. They went in June 2017 to see his primary care physician, who did a test on Buchanan, told him he may have Alzheimer's disease and needed to stop driving.

"I was startled," Buchanan said. He told her "You sit and watch me take a 30-minute test and say something as complicated as Alzheimer's?"

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Rich Buchanan didn't have any pressure finding that word while working on a word search Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at his Bloomington home. Word searches help Buchanan to work his brain as he lives with Alzheimer's disease.

Buchanan gave up his car keys and his primary care physician referred him to Psychology Specialists for 12 hours of testing over three visits in July. Test results confirmed Alzheimer's disease. He was referred to a neurologist, who prescribed medication to try to slow the progression of the disease, and a counselor for weekly therapy sessions.

But Buchanan lost his appetite and 30 pounds. In addition, Buchanan, who has suffered from occasional anxiety and panic attacks for several years, wasn't sleeping, once left the house at night and fell outside, and last autumn had a full-blown panic attack.

He spent 11 days in Advocate BroMenn Medical Center as doctors got his blood pressure under control to reduce his risk of heart attack and stroke.

A hospitalist looked at the meds that Buchanan was taking for Alzheimer's disease, anxiety disorder, high blood pressure and diabetes.

"He said the meds weren't interacting well," Judy recalled. In collaboration with Buchanan's other doctors, he adjusted the meds.

His appetite returned and anxiety lessened, thanks to the medication adjustments, weekly visits with his counselor and his Bible reading.

"Don't let anxiety ruin your life," Buchanan said. "That's not what the Lord wants. I haven't experienced an intense panic attack since late last year and my anxiety is way down."

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Rich Buchanan performs a balance exercise on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 in the kitchen of his Bloomington home. Buchanan exercises daily to work his body and mind and reduce his risk of falling.

Physical and occupational therapists have worked with Buchanan on exercises to help his balance and a speech therapist suggested word searches to help Buchanan to continue recognize letters and work his brain.

"There is help out there," Judy said.

"Rich is in the stage now where he wants to talk about the future," Judy said. "What's it going to be like a year from now? I try to focus our conversations and attention to right now rather than the future because I don't have those answers. That helps to reduce anxiety. We try to focus on things we enjoy together rather than what we have lost."

Buchanan said "She (Judy) starts every day with a smile and takes care of me...We've had a wonderful life."

"I'm in a battle with Alzheimer's," he said. "There is no cure. I'm going to lose this battle. But I've got this war already won...The end will come for me when the beginning of my eternity is. I feel obligated to share the forgiving gospel of the blood of Jesus Christ.

"I can't lose."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech


Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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