Star Tribune

Three years ago, Tracy Beckman moved out of the house -- five years after his wife, Janel, was diagnosed with what probably is Alzheimer's disease.

"I just didn't know how to deal with it," said Beckman, 64, of St. Paul. "All my years as a problem-solver -- as a state legislator, teacher, a recovering alcoholic -- that didn't seem to help. I was in a lot of denial, a lot of pain, actually pretty selfish."

But six months later he was back home.

What changed? For one thing, help from Kathryn Ringham, a social worker at Wilder Services for the Elderly who teaches people how to be caregivers.

At an elder care forum organized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in St. Paul on Monday, Beckman described the challenges of caring for an ailing spouse and called for the expansion of coaching programs like the one that helped him.

A bill introduced by Klobuchar, the American Giving Care to Elders Act, would increase support for caregivers through a tax credit of up to $1,200 a year and expand support services such as caregiver coaching.

"This coaching has been a godsend for me," Beckman said. "Every two or three weeks, Kathryn checks in with me, and it's meant so much -- especially developing a plan of action. Life is easier with a plan."

Wilder provides the caregiver counseling with three other groups that formed a consortium called Eldercare Partners (

At Monday's forum, Klobuchar said she and others in Congress are trying to include long-term care in the current debate over reforming health care.

"We know programs like that help people stay in their homes longer, where they want to be. That means people are happier, and it saves taxpayers a lot of money," she said, noting one estimate that a 5 percent reduction in nursing home residents would cut federal spending by $2 billion a year. Klobuchar's office estimates that almost 10 million elderly Americans now need some form of long-term care.

'I fill up today'

Two years after her diagnosis, Janel Beckman took up painting with watercolors, a skill that surprised even her.

"When I saw her first painting, I cried," her husband said. "Then I talked to my son and he'd gotten a painting in the mail, and we both cried."

"In some ways," Janel said, "I think I deal better with the disease than Tracy. I know I've got today, so I fill up today."

Doctor's don't agree on Beckman's diagnosis. The Mayo Clinic says "mild cognitive impairment," likely a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. The University of Minnesota says it's Alzheimer's.

"It doesn't really matter what it's called," she said in an interview at the couple's home. "The fact is, I'm probably going to have more and more problems with my memory and judgment."

She stopped driving recently because an assessment at Mayo noted a decline in her ability to process the plethora of information streaming at drivers.

But she still goes out with friends, prepares a meal every two weeks for people at a nearby AIDS hospice, does her daily crossword puzzles and attends two Alzheimer's support groups, one for couples.

The Beckmans were raised in Bricelyn, Minn., near Albert Lea. They went to school there, married at age 18 and raised five children there. There were absences -- three years in the Army, graduate school at Harvard and a stint in Washington, D.C., after Tracy Beckman served nearly four terms in the Minnesota Senate. They moved to St. Paul six years ago. He retired a year ago as director of government and community relations at Augsburg College.

Simply getting caregiver coaching -- and marriage counseling after their separation -- didn't end their disagreements as they navigate the Alzheimer's journey.

"I'm not comfortable leaving you alone at night anymore," he said -- quickly backtracking when Janel challenged him. "I mean being alone all night, not just the evening. ... I see you don't completely agree."

"Now we can talk like this, the hard stuff," Janel said.

"We're getting by for now," Tracy added. "I don't know all the answers, but I can call my coach when I need help."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253