Glen Campbell's wife discusses her new reality as an Alzheimer's caregiver

In 2011, musician Glen Campbell posed with his wife Kim in Malibu, Calif., after his diagnosis was announced. Kim Campbell is now caring for her husband in their Nashville home.
In 2011, musician Glen Campbell posed with his wife Kim in Malibu, Calif., after his diagnosis was announced. Kim Campbell is now caring for her husband in their Nashville home. ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHATTANOOGA, TENN. — Kim Campbell compares the plight of Bill Murray's movie character in Groundhog Day with the daily routine of an Alzheimer's caregiver:

"We feel like we are living the same thing over and over."

The caregiver's role is one she's learned since her husband's diagnosis of Alzheimer's four years ago.

Kim Campbell, 57, is the fourth wife of singer-songwriter Glen Campbell, the original Rhinestone Cowboy whose hits from the 1960s to present day won him 10 Grammys, got him inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, gained him a popular weekly television series in the late '60s and early '70s and landed him movie roles.

His decision to go public with his illness in 2011 by taping his farewell concert tour for a documentary was highly publicized, as has been the progression of his illness.

In July, Kim Campbell moved her husband from a skilled-care facility into their Nashville home. She believes he still knows her.

"He calls me Mrs. Campbell. But he definitely understands smiles, hugs, kisses. He's physically healthy, cheerful and content most of the time," she says.

Indeed, Glenn Campbell's familiar tenor voice can be heard in the background, singing snatches of phrases here and there throughout the phone interview.

"But he can become extremely combative if you try to redirect him to something that he doesn't want to do," she explains. "I have a black eye right now. I know that's not him, that's not who he is; it's just the Alzheimer's."

Her husband's illness has turned her into a tireless advocate for Alzheimer's caregivers.

Kim Campbell acknowledges his family saw warning signs in the months before the diagnosis and remained in denial until the doctor confirmed it. Afterward, the singer made the decision to go public with his illness before his final tour, then invited filmmakers James Keach and Trevor Albert to document it. Kim Campbell and their three children (of his eight total) joined him on a 151-show world tour that was filmed for Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me.

"There is still a stigma attached to Alzheimer's, people are still embarrassed about it, and Glen's intention was to break that stigma," Kim Campbell says of the documentary.

"I think it did raise awareness about the way the disease progresses," says Cindy Lowery, senior vice president of the Midsouth Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "I thought the documentary, in the time it covered, showed a definite progression. By the last concert, he was disoriented and it was obvious that should be the end of the tour."

Glenn Campbell went into the studio one last time to record I'm Not Gonna Miss You for the documentary, a song he co-wrote with Julian Raymond. Its haunting opening line — "I'm still here, but yet I'm gone" — captured the essence of coping with Alzheimer's in seven words. The song won a Grammy for Best Country Song and garnered the singer his first Oscar nomination in the Best Original Song category.

After the tour concluded in 2012, Kim Campbell says she was her husband's caregiver through 2013 until his move to the skilled-care facility last year.

"We were living in Malibu (in 2013). Glen's friend would come pick him up six days a week and take him golfing and that gave me at least five hours a day to have time for myself," she says.

The friend continued to take Glen Campbell for their golf rounds even when it got to the point that "Glen just wanted to hunt lost balls in the bushes. One day Glen came home with 75 balls in his bag, and his friend came home with ... poison ivy."

Kim Campbell says the sheer joy those golf outings brought her husband, combined with his friend's kindness, inspired a "golf angel program" that she is now working to implement. Her idea is to pair a volunteer mentor with someone who has dementia to spend time together anywhere they choose. Whether they go to a golf course or watch golf on TV, it gives caregivers a rest.

"I guess my message to caregivers is to look on the bright side," she says. "Make the best of a bad situation. Cherish every moment you have with each other. I want to tell them ways they can educate themselves and different options that are available to them.

"There is not a right or wrong answer — you can't do it by yourself, you have to have help."