One of Ray Flachbart’s initiatives during his 12-year tenure as CEO of Blue Cross of Idaho was to create more opportunities for his roughly 800 employees to live active and healthier lives.
Empty conference rooms were turned into fitness rooms, trainers were brought in and partial reimbursements were offered for weight-loss programs. Lunch-and-learn sessions were scheduled, and employees were encouraged to use walking paths on campus.
“He just really had a focus on trying to encourage all of the employees who worked at Blue Cross to take their health as a priority,” said MacKenzie Rodgers, who at that time worked for the American Heart Association but is now director of the Boise-based Greater Idaho Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Flachbart (pronounced flash-bart), who retired in the fall of 2012 and was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in December of 2013, believes more than ever in the value of daily exercise and staying active.
“I didn’t realize I should have been doing more,” he lamented of busy years during his career. “I would work out, but it wasn’t always consistent.”
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. It is a progressive brain disease that affects memory, language and motor skills. Research shows that regular exercise may help prevent, slow the progress and be good therapy for those with dementia.
Flachbart, 64, works out six days a week, including three days of CrossFit training and one day of yoga. When he can’t walk on the Greenbelt, he pedals a stationary bike in his house. A fun, if not rigorous, activity he does regularly with his wife, Marybeth, is kayaking on the large man-made lake behind their home in Eagle’s Laguna Pointe subdivision.
The Flachbarts have gone public about Ray’s illness and their journey, and they’ll be speaking at the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Meridian on Oct. 3.
“I don’t want to preach to anybody. The workouts and family togetherness, it’s what works for me,” he said, explaining that he has good and bad days but has felt better than he has in a long time since starting this routine.
NO FAMILY HISTORY
Flachbart’s illness did not lead to his retirement, though in hindsight he and his wife recognize there were some symptoms.
“He was not as sharp and engaged,” Marybeth Flachbart recalled. “He went to a doctor six years ago. Because of his job, they chalked it up to stress.”
In the fall of 2012, the Flachbarts returned to Texas — where they were living before he was hired by Blue Cross in Idaho — after Marybeth was hired to her dream job running a nonprofit Neuhaus Education Center, a literacy think tank in Houston. Previously, she worked for the Idaho Department of Education for a decade, including three years as deputy superintendent.
One of the first hints that Marybeth had that something was amiss with Ray was having to repeat things over and over. She wondered if it was a hearing problem. He’d sometimes forget social obligations, and words became elusive.
“We were moving. We needed to get the house on the market. He would say, I’ll call the Realtor,” Marybeth said. “None of it would happen. I wrongly assumed he just didn’t want to do it. If you’re not looking for Alzheimer’s, you don’t see it.”
She said doctors then diagnosed him with depression. The medicines prescribed to treat that seemed to make his cognition even worse, so she decided they needed to press for more answers.
A battery of tests, including an MRI and CAT scan, concluded that Ray had Alzheimer’s disease. They opted to pay $3,000 out of pocket to confirm that diagnosis with a PET scan — which showed the protein buildup in the brain associated with the disease.
Marybeth said the first time they got the news, the doctor handed them a pamphlet and left them to talk. The second time, there was a social worker to support them.
“I wonder how many other families get my first experience and not the second,” Marybeth said. “There is value in having social workers because it’s such a shock.”
One of the reasons the Flachbarts were surprised was because Ray doesn’t have any history of Alzheimer’s or other dementias in his family. His father lived to be 85, with no sign of dementia, and his mother died in her 50s of cancer.
Ray was 61 when he was diagnosed — too young for a disease most-often associated with the elderly. But about 5 percent of the more than 5 million people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias in the United States are younger than 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Rodgers, the Idaho spokeswoman for the association, said early diagnosis is important because that’s when available drugs seem to be most effective. There are no drugs that prevent or cure Alzheimer’s.
“If the diagnosis comes after the first couple years, we’ve missed a window for treatment,” she said. “The drugs slow the buildup of plaque in the brain. We’re not stopping the buildup. We’re slowing it down. What those drugs are trying to do is keep people in those early stages as long as possible.”
In 2013, the Legislature adopted a state plan for addressing the needs of people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, their family members and caregivers. Rodgers said a private sector working group has worked on five strategic goals in the plan, which has not received any state funding.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
“My job is to walk Ray home and to ensure that there is as much joy and quality of life as we can provide,” Marybeth said.
Ray and Marybeth have been married 26 years. He’s from Cleveland, and she’s from New York City. They met at a singles mixer in a small Connecticut town where they both were living — he was working for Prudential, she was working on her master’s degree in special education.
She recalled not being very happy that there were 45 women and only three men who turned up at the singles party that he organized. He called her for a date a couple days later, and they hit it off.
“I just loved her from the beginning,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
“He was the most eloquent man I’d ever met,” she said.
With their combined educational backgrounds, they could staff a community college. He earned a bachelor’s in religious studies before going on for a master’s in urban planning and then an MBA. She studied art and art history as an undergraduate and earned a doctorate in education. Her specialty is literacy in at-risk youth.
She’s still working full-time but as an off-site employee for Portland-based Education Northwest, a nonprofit dedicated to improving communities and schools. During the work week, they have two caregivers who help them out — Ray does all the grocery shopping but does not drive. His daily schedule is kept on a white board in the kitchen.
He tries to stay active, but he sometimes doesn’t feel up to it. He loves going to Boise State football games and meeting friends for lunch.
“Sometimes he’ll reach for a memory or a word, but I quickly forget he has Alzheimer’s,” said longtime friend Ward Parkinson, co-founder of Micron. “I don’t really see a big difference from the Ray I used to talk to years ago. More importantly, I don’t feel a difference. He’s the same very charming, competent guy.”
Ray said the first six months after his diagnosis was the toughest time of his life.
“Sadness was the No. 1 thing I remember from that period,” he said. “We were really lost.”
Marybeth described it as “trying to stand up in a tsunami.”
“If it’s this hard for us, I can only imagine how hard it is for people who don’t have the financial resources,” she said.
They found help and guidance through support groups run by the Alzheimer’s Association in Houston. Ray was also a peer mentor to those with the disease who couldn’t get to support groups. They’re both active in the Boise association.
They moved back to Idaho three months ago to be near their children: Nick, 32; Rachel, 23; and Katie, 21. Rachel moved back from Washington, D.C., where she worked as a staff assistant for Sen. Mike Crapo.
Katie, who is working on a degree in social work at Boise State University, sees her father several times a week. They often have lunch together. She said she went through a lot of emotions after his diagnosis.
“It was very hard going to school and working with that kind of burden,” she said. “I ended up having to tell one of my profs about it. I was missing class because I just couldn’t get myself up to get there. It took a pretty serious toll on me.”
She said her dad is the “greatest” and “most caring” man she’s ever met. Talking about how her family is grappling with his illness has helped.
“The more people you can tell, the more you kind of come to terms with it as well. It’s less of a dark cloud,” she said.
The Flashbarts have developed a dark sense of humor about the whole thing, choosing to laugh instead of cry.
“We’ve learned to laugh about a lot of stuff. It hasn’t always been that way,” Katie said. “If my dad forgets something, he’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I have Alzheimer’s.’”