Helen Cordes was a force to contend with, ever the go-getter and a civic-minded volunteer.
She doesn’t know that now. She is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Most of the time her eyes are open and she’s awake, but she has a distant stare,” said her husband and caretaker, Roy Cordes Jr.
Cordes is the Fort Bend County Attorney. He married Helen 30 years ago. It was a second marriage for both of them. “Half that time has been with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” Cordes said.
Helen Cordes was very involved in the community in the 1980s and ’90s. In addition to raising two daughters, she served on the Fort Bend Regional Council, including three years as president. She served on board of the United Way Gulf Coast, was on the Fort Bend County Fair Association board, the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees, and the Fort Bend Historical Association, where she co-chaired the organization’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Lone Star Stomp. She also chaired the Fort Bend Challenger Project, which raised $500,000 to help build the Challenger Learning Center at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park.
She was so respected for her efforts that the Fort Bend Regional Council named an annual award after her.
Roy Cordes recalled how they first began her journey with Alzheimer’s. It was late 2000 when Helen began to feel a little out of kilter.
“Helen noticed something wasn’t right,” he said.
After several visits with doctors, they were directed to a neurologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. In 2001, at the age of 56, Helen was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
“It was kind of overwhelming for both of us,” Cordes said.
A friend directed them to the Alzheimer’s Association, where they found an abundance of friendship and support.
“They help you understand what you’re facing,” he said.
As they approached life with the disease, Helen did so with the same gusto she did before the diagnosis.
“She said, ‘make me a poster child if you want to,’” Cordes said.
Helen even spoke at one of the association’s conferences about how long it took to get a diagnosis.
They became very involved in the Alzheimer’s Association. It provided them with access to psychologists and support groups to attend. They went to meetings where patients went to one room and caregivers to anther for specialized discussions.
“It helps you understand what you’re experiencing and the progression of the disease,” Cordes said.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that affects the brain. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.”
“There are no survivors,” Roy noted.
In 2003 Roy and Helen Cordes co-chaired the Fort Bend County Memory Walk, an event to raise money and awareness of the disease. June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month and November is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness and Caregivers Month. This year the Walk to End Alzheimer’s will take place Oct. 27 in Sugar Land at the University of Houston campus.
Today, Roy volunteers on the board of the local chapter of the association.
“The Alzheimer’s Association was always there when we needed them,” he said, noting they have a crisis hotline that is always open.
As he sat in his office on the third floor of the historic county courthouse, Cordes spoke fondly of his wife, often glancing at one of the pictures of her he keeps on his desk. She may no longer recognize him, but he cannot forget her.
“It can be a very short process or a very long one,” he said while talking about how quickly the disease acts.
In Helen’s case, the process has been long – almost 18 years so far.
“She has lost the ability to speak and she is not able to care for herself anymore,” he said.
A caregiver watches over her at their home whenever Roy can’t be there.
The most common symptom of the disease is the loss of memory. Because Alzheimer’s affects the brain, it eventually impairs most all bodily functions.
“Your memory is there, what you lose is your ability to access it,” Cordes said.
Because patients are detached from their memories Cordes said it is important when you’re with them to just live in the moment.
“It’s a progressive disease. You will watch your loved one change, but you need to support them in it,” he said.
Support is key, both for the patient and the caregiver. That’s why Cordes so passionately encourages people facing a diagnosis with a loved one to reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“They were an enormous help,” he said.
For more information, visit www.alz.org.