Pictures: Life with Early Alzheimer's

Bradley Garner (right) rests his head on his father's shoulder as the family sits down for lunch at home. (Kaitlin McKeown/Daily Press / September 15, 2012)

"He was very capable, good at fixing things around the house," said Karen.

Last year, they met with lawyers to put in place a power of attorney and a medical power of attorney, and provisions to protect their assets.

"We got as much done while Jim could help me. It gives him some comfort to have things in place," she said. It's too late, though, to get more life insurance or the long-term care insurance that a friend who went through a similar experience recommended.

"I was expecting her to say, 'we should have made love more,'" Karen said, ruefully.

While Jim's mental decline isn't immediately obvious in a social setting, it has affected the couple's physical relationship.

"He no longer has the ability to share his thoughts, there's no emotional intimacy, so it's hard to have the physical intimacy," Karen said as Jim's eyes momentarily brimmed with tears. "It's like losing your best friend and your lover."

In 2005, Jim retired from the Air Force as a senior master sergeant after 23 years working on radar systems. This January, he quit his job as a contractor, no longer able to multi-task.

"He had to work very hard. He had a list; he just went by that," said Karen. "I think he could still do a part-time repetitive job." Again, his eyes glistened with tears before taking on a vacant, faraway look.

Though he gets an enlisted grade military pension and has just been approved for Social Security Disability Insurance, SSDI, the family has taken an economic hit. Karen has ramped up her work hours, and they've scaled back on the extensive travel they used to enjoy. They went up and down the East Coast, to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, to California, Mexico, Germany and Italy. They loved the Outer Banks, camping, skiing and whitewater rafting.

"We always wanted to go to Australia," Karen said, wistfully. They're still planning to "scrimp and save" in order to take a family trip to Alaska next year, a destination chosen by Jim.

A great personality

On the bright side, he currently has his "dream job" of stay-at-home dad.

"It's something he's always wanted to do," said Karen. He plays Monopoly with the children — the National Parks version — for hours on end, occasionally admonishing Bradley to play fair, and other times showing his humor with some dry one-liners. "He's gotten really, really witty the last few months," Karen noted.

Their friends attest to his humor and personality. Lauri Nosil, who frequently walks the neighborhood with Karen, has observed how he's changed. "He was so sharp, witty and charming. It's like his personality has been watered down," she said. "He is truly a ton of fun. The things that make Jim Jim are slowly changing and going away."

When Karen confided in Diane Griffiths a couple of years ago, her friend wasn't sure what to think.

"We were two girlfriends trying to figure things out. A lot of it is so subtle you'd only notice in your immediate family. You question your reality," she said. Since then, Griffiths has noticed a difference in how Jim socializes, but described him as "lovely to be around," and very supportive of Karen.

He still stays fit, running several miles most days, and he still tosses a baseball with Bradley in the yard, but he's given up coaching his son's T-ball team.

"I'd help out if they wanted me to," he said mildly. "I could teach them how to play."

To keep up with the children's activities, Jim writes down as many notes as he can; he also relies on reminders from them, such as what to put in their lunches. "Or I ask Karen," he said with characteristic directness. Behind the wheel, he uses written directions to navigate, and Karen constantly monitors his safety, aware that one day she'll have to take away the keys.

Family history