The date was going better than Charlie Miller, age 60, could have ever imagined. It was March 2010 in Kansas City, Mo. and Charlie was sitting across from a beautiful woman in a in a midtown coffee shop, talking about life. Just a month earlier, his best friend had burst into Charlie's dark apartment and roused Charlie from his lethargy, saying, "You need to open up these windows and let some light in. You should start dating."
"Who would go out with a guy who has Early Onset Alzheimer's?" Charlie asked his friend.
"Maybe you should find out," his friend replied.
For months, ever since Charlie lost his job and received his diagnosis, he'd been plagued by a plummeting sense of self-worth and a devastating depression. Now, with his friend's insistence and support, Charlie pried himself out of bed and joined an online dating site. This coffee date with Elizabeth Hack was the result.
Elizabeth, age 55, was brilliant, interesting, energetic, curious and shared many of Charlie's interests. She'd been divorced seven years and had yet to meet someone she really connected with. Her daughter had gently pushed Elizabeth into considering the online site.
Elizabeth had been impressed with Charlie's profile and his title, "Spirit Soul Seeker." She liked the way Charlie easily talked about his spiritual journey. When she asked what he liked to do, he mentioned listening to music, attending theater, visiting with friends and volunteering for the Alzheimer's Association.
Elizabeth knew nothing about Alzheimer's disease. She asked, "Does someone in your family have the disease?"
"Yes," Charlie answered. He wanted to say more but the words stuck in his throat. He had never envisioned this casual meeting could possibly turn into a romance. Yet he was already comfortable with Elizabeth and felt their relationship was meant to be.
They arranged to meet each other at a restaurant the following weekend, and then go to a blues club. Soon they were seeing each other every week, meeting at concerts, going to plays and exploring new restaurants. They talked daily.
As their friendship deepened. Charlie knew he had to share his diagnosis with Elizabeth and he worried she wouldn't be able to accept it.
Six weeks into the relationship, eager to learn more about Charlie's interests, Elizabeth visited the local Alzheimer's Association website. There she saw something that stopped her cold: a picture of Charlie as a volunteer and as a person who has Alzheimer's. She felt shocked, dismayed and disappointed. And she felt sad, wondering if she'd lost him before they'd even really started their relationship. She also realized how deeply she already felt for Charlie.
That day, when Charlie called, she confronted him. "I am upset by the news and upset you didn't tell me," she told him.
Charlie explained how difficult it was to talk about his illness. "I was afraid if I told you, you would go away."
His honest communication made her feel better. He discussed what had happened to him because of the disease, described his earlier depression and told her what could happen in the future. Elizabeth struggled to absorb the information: She'd had no idea Charlie had any neurological impairment or that he'd suffered with depression.
When Charlie suggested she visit his social worker at the Alzheimer's Association to learn more about the disease, Elizabeth agreed. Though the information was daunting, her connection with Charlie was strong and true; she, too, felt they were destined to be together.
She joined a support group and shared Charlie's diagnosis with family and close friends.
"Everyone already loved Charlie," she says. "One friend said, 'You two really care about each other; we'll be your support system.'"
That summer, Elizabeth had committed to traveling to Australia for three weeks. She loved the trip but couldn't wait to return to Kansas City.
"I missed Charlie," she said. "I couldn't believe how deeply I felt."
When she returned, they were together every day. Charlie planned a trip to California for them. In a vineyard restaurant in Napa Valley, Charlie proposed and Elizabeth instantly said, "Yes."
"I will be a good man to you," Charlie vowed. They were married on December 27, 2010 in Kansas City. Today, they are living happily, grateful they have found each other.
"Happiness is an inside job," Charlie says.
"I was happy before, but with Charlie, I have a sense of joy," Elizabeth says.
Both frequently express their affection and share their feelings of love and connection.
"None of us know what will happen next," Elizabeth says.
The other night, we were at a dinner party. One friend was just released from the hospital after heart surgery, and another friend was facing a knee replacement. I felt concerned for my friends and I felt so lucky that Charlie and I were happy and together. We are dedicated to living with joy and curiosity in the present moment.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver's Journey.