Jack Sweeney won’t get his wife Denise a Valentine’s card today.
He won’t get her candy or flowers or take her for a romantic dinner somewhere.
He hasn’t done those sort of things for years now.
Denise Sweeney will forgive those lapses.
It’s not that Jack doesn’t love his wife.
He doesn’t know it’s Valentine’s Day.
He doesn’t even know it’s 2016.
Jack, 62, has Alzheimer’s disease.
First day of class
Before Jack forgot how to form sentences or brush his teeth or differentiate a coffee mug from a bowl of fruit, he was a handsome frat boy at Georgia Southern University.
Denise, a fellow student, met him on the first day of classes freshman year in the early 1970s.
“He was actually (flirting) with another girl at my table in the dining hall,” Denise said.
She smiled at the memory while Jack sat quietly next to her in the living room of their Hilton Head Island home last week.
The two “were just friends for a good year, but somewhere along the line, things changed,” Denise said.
Only months after they started dating, in 1974, Jack asked Denise to be his wife.
“I was shocked because there was no discussion of our future together at all,” she said. “... But we went for it and got married while we were still in college.”
She smiled again at that memory.
“Nobody was happy about it — except the two of us.”
Making a life together
In the three decades that followed, Denise and Jack made a life together.
He built a successful career in the hotel industry.
She worked in insurance.
Because of Jack’s status in upper management of a number of hotel chains, the couple “always had a nice restaurant to go” on Valentine’s Day, Denise said.
At home, their family grew. There were two daughters and the kind of constant love that made “almost every day like Valentine's Day — things were so happy,” Denise said.
Jack’s success allowed Denise to leave her job and stay home to raise the kids.
His career took the family all over the East Coast and they settled for a time in New York.
In 2001, Jack was managing the Millennium Hilton Hotel in Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center.
Jack was in the hotel on September 11 when the planes struck the towers across the street.
While he escaped unhurt, it took more than a day to make contact with Denise.
“As scary as that wait was, I think finding out about his disease was just as terrifying,” Denise said.
Jack lost his job in 2009.
“He had been very successful,” Denise said. “But his (ability to) work changed and he was having a hard time remembering things.”
As he searched for a new job, Jack’s symptoms worsened.
“I started noticing he was having trouble on the computer typing his resume and cover letters,” Denise said.
Jack went to a doctor who suspected his problems might be due to sleep apnea.
Another physician thought he might have multiple sclerosis.
After 18 months of tests, the family finally learned what it was.
Jack was 56 years old.
Not just a disease for the old
5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease
5 percent of those with the disease are under 65
Alzheimer’s disease causes brain cells to degenerate and die.
It afflicts more than 5 million Americans, but only about 5 percent of those are under 65, Taylor Wilson of the Alzheimer's Association’s South Carolina chapter said.
“For a very long time people thought of it only as an old timer’s disease,” she said.
That’s part of the reason why it took so long to diagnose Jack.
“Initially doctors didn’t even consider (Alzheimer's) because he was so young,” Denise said.
In the months after his diagnosis, Jack’s condition deteriorated rapidly.
He was no longer able to pick out clothes to wear.
“He might walk around with socks on his hands and I’d have to tell him that ‘those go on your feet,’” Denise said.
Meals became problematic.
“He gets confused with spoons and forks, so I have to tell him which is the right one to use,” she said.
Denise became Jack’s full time caregiver four years ago, helping him through everyday tasks -- shaving and dressing among them -- that most of us take for granted.
She sometimes has to guide him through the most basic of tasks.
As the couple spoke with a reporter last week, she asked her husband to sit down in a chair.
Twice, he raised one foot to stand on the chair.
Twice, Denise gently corrected him, patting the small of his back until he understood what he was supposed to do.
“I never pictured myself as a caregiver, but obviously we do what we’ve got to do,” she said.
That includes occasional frustration.
It does not include seeing what she does as a burden.
“He always had my back. He worked hard and sacrificed so I could have the lifestyle I wanted,” she said.
“Now is my chance to have his back. (It) gives me a chance to do what he’s always done for me.
“… I’ll be here to the very end. I’m not walking out on him.”
What she misses most is the sound of his voice, the one’s she’s listened to for more than 40 years.
I know he loves me. Those are three words he can still say: ‘I love you.’
“He really can’t verbalize what’s going through his mind,” Denise said.
Not that Jack is completely without speech.
“I know he loves me,” Denise said. “Those are three words he can still say: ‘I love you.’”
Even when Jack’s brain struggles to get those three words to his lips, he shows his love and gratitude in other ways.
“When we are sitting on the couch, he’ll reach out and take my hand,” Denise said. “At night, he’ll put his arm around me … and I can see in his eyes that he is receiving my love for him.”
She believes he remembers that love.
And if he ever does not, she will remember it for both of them.
Fundraising for a cure
Denise Sweeney’s’s efforts to help those with Alzheimer’s extends well beyond helping her husband Jack find his shoes or pour a glass of water.
She organizes an annual golf tournament called Swing for Memories, which has raised $20,000 for Alzheimer's research over the past two years.
Playing golf “is the one thing (Jack) can still do and seems to enjoy,” Denise said. “He struggles (to choose which club to use), but he still has his beautiful swing.”
Last year, Denise recruited a team to participate in Bluffton’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
Her team raised more than $26,000 — more than any other team in South Carolina.
“Honoring (Jack) by working so hard raising money to find a cure is beautiful,” Wilson of the Alzheimer's Association said. “This is her love song for him.”