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a southern soiree
Story by Audrey Hanes, Photo by Amy Long

According to Arkansas State Rep. Butch Wilkins, although Alzheimer’s currently affects more than 50,000 Arkansans over the age of 65, its devastating
effects are more far-reaching. Later this month, Wilkins will be honored at a special event in Jonesboro that will raise awareness and money for the disease that claimed the life of his wife, Pat, just last year.

“Every time I hear about a new diagnosis for Alzheimer’s, it just tears my heart out because I know what that family is going to go through,” said Wilkins. “We have got to find a cure. It’s almost more devastating on the families than the victims. …

“My wife was diagnosed 10 years before she died. I knew for sometime before that she had a problem. Her father died with Alzheimer’s and her grandmother died with Alzheimer’s. She was confused a lot.”

Wilkins said he kept asking Pat to go to a doctor, and she finally did after an instance in St. Louis where she got lost getting back to their hotel and another instance at home when she put paper towels away in the oven. After going to see her regular physician, a specialist diagnosed Pat with Alzheimer’s.

“At the time, I had very little knowledge of Alzheimer’s,” said Wilkins. “I got really involved with researching it online and trying to find out about things that could help her.”

From the start, Wilkins made the decision that he was going to serve as his wife’s caretaker so that she could remain at home.

“Life is a series of decisions,” said Wilkins. “We make decisions every day. I made the decision early on that I was going to do everything I could for her. She was deathly afraid of having to go to a nursing home, and I promised her that wouldn’t happen.”

Even while Pat was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, Wilkins stood by her side. In response to television evangelist Pat Robertson’s controversial statement that when Alzheimer’s patients reach a certain stage it was OK to put them away and go on with one’s life, the couple renewed their vows after 35 years of marriage.

“I understood what he was saying, but that’s not right,” said Wilkins. “If it had been another 10 years, I still would have stayed with my wife and been faithful and loyal to her. I really wanted to make a statement with that of how important it is to honor your wedding vows even in the worst possible times.”

On Oct. 25, 2013, at the age of 69, Pat passed away at home with her husband by her side.

“It’s an individual thing,” said Wilkins of caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s. “I think everyone has to decide for themselves. I am pretty happy with what we did. I was sitting there holding her hand when she died.”

During his wife’s battle with the disease, Wilkins became involved with the Alzheimer’s Association on a state level and its annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Jonesboro. He is the chair of the statewide Alzheimer’s task force, which he also helped create. This month, Wilkins will be honored for his work with Alzheimer’s awareness. The event, A Southern Soirée: Honoring State
Representative Butch Wilkins, will be held April 10.

Rep. Harold Copenhaver is the event’s honorary chairman and says the decision to get involved was an easy one.

“Rep. Wilkins heightened awareness about the need for better public policy to assist Arkansans battling Alzheimer’s and their caregivers by sharing his personal story with his fellow legislators, including me,” said Copenhaver. “The Alzheimer’s Association and Rep. Wilkins have been leaders in the fight against Alzheimer’s in Arkansas, and I want to join that fight by assisting others.”

Copenhaver has also been personally touched by Alzheimer’s. His wife’s grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the young age of 55 before passing away 17 years later, and his mother is currently in the early stages of the disease. He says to watch the effects on his father each day is crushing.

“Alzheimer’s has touched almost everyone in some way – through a loved one passing away, through a current family member living with the illness or just (by) knowing someone who suffers,” said Copenhaver. “A Southern Soirée will be an extraordinary event to honor a loving man. … While we are honoring Butch with the event, we are also remembering Ms. Pat and the strong woman that so bravely fought this disease.”

Wilkins said that it’s an honor to be a part of the special event and that raising money to help find a cure and to get the word out to the public is an extension of being a caregiver.

“The disease is more and more prevalent,” said Wilkins. “If you don’t know someone now with Alzheimer’s now, chances are you will before long. It’s a disease that takes so much out of your family. You have to sit there and watch someone you love dwindle away – just watch their mind disappear. One day they’re fine, and the next they’re confused.

“I wish the whole world knew how bad it was. I think they’re beginning to see. I cannot think of a worse way to go than to lose your mind. Education is really important. We’ll all be touched by it unless someone finds a cure.”

A Southern Soirée: Honoring State Representative Butch Wilkins will take place on April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at Church Street Station and will include dinner, guest speakers and surprise entertainment. For more information, email ahogue@alz.org or call (501) 265-0027.