Angela Weiss/Getty Images For The Open Hearts Foundation
Kim Campbell recalls the day her husband, Glen Campbell, impulsively tried to buy a huge bottle of Pepto-Bismol in a drugstore. She stopped him, only to learn later that he intended it as a romantic gift for her and was drawn to its bright-pink hue.
"It broke my heart when I realized I had robbed him of the opportunity to do something meaningful,” she says. “That was so precious. I want people to make sure they take the time to listen to someone with dementia. Don't be dismissive and think they don't know what they're doing. There might be something beautiful behind the way their brain is working.”
Kim, 61, was the country superstar's wife for 34 years until his death, in 2017, at age 81, after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. She examines her life, their marriage and his struggles with alcoholism and dementia in her new autobiography, Gentle on My Mind: In Sickness and in Health with Glen Campbell, which serves as a celebration of her husband's storied career, as well as a love story, a harrowing account of living with an addict and a guide for caregivers.
"My main message is that you can't do it alone,” Kim says, conceding that she was slow to learn that lesson.
Kim Woollen, raised in rural North Carolina, was 22 and a Rockette at New York's Radio City Music Hall when she met the 45-year-old music legend on a blind date, in 1981. She knew little about Campbell, the Arkansas native who shot to fame on the strength of such classics as “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Southern Nights.” She found him handsome, sweet and funny. Initially charming, he was drunk by the end of the evening, she writes, but Kim was smitten and determined to give him a chance. She became his fourth wife in late 1982.
She describes a fairytale life of romance, wealth, travel and celebrities. Glen was a generous, doting and fun-loving partner until he hit the booze or snorted cocaine. Naive and ill-equipped to handle such a crisis, Kim relied on her faith to cope.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
"On our first date, when the waiter brought food to the table, Glen bowed his head and said a prayer,” Kim recalls. “I had faith, and I felt he had a basis of faith to work with. I believed God would help him overcome this. I fell in love with the man and saw drinking as the obstacle. I had to grow up really quick so that I could support him and help him function and to overcome the denial. That was the hardest thing he faced. Glen was obnoxious and mean-spirited and angry when he was drinking, and he did not remember any of it the next day."
Kim resisted leaving. “I loved him; that's the main reason I stayed,” she explains. “He was such a good man when he wasn't drinking, and I didn't want to allow the drinking to destroy him. I knew if I left, he would die. But when I had a baby, that's when I said, ‘I'm not going to raise a child like this. I can't do this anymore.’ I decided to reach out for help."
She confided in Jackie Autry, wife of Gene Autry (aka the Singing Cowboy), who confronted Glen. Other friends and relatives also pressed him to sober up. He did. Finally, Kim found domestic peace with a sober husband and their three children, Cal, Ashley and Shannon.
"There were 15 years when we had the most fabulous life, loving each other and enjoying our children,” Kim recalls. “We had such joy."
Glen's diagnosis with Alzheimer's
When Glen began exhibiting evidence of memory loss, Kim initially dismissed it as laziness or aging. She began to suspect dementia as his symptoms worsened. He trailed her constantly. One day, as a test, she strolled around a swimming pool 15 times. He followed her, unfazed.
"Early on in his decline, he would tell the same jokes over and over again,” she says. “He just started to slip away. There was no intellectual back and forth anymore, and I felt like I was losing my best friend."
He was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2009 and Alzheimer's in late 2010. The couple kept the news under wraps until June 2011.
"When we got the diagnosis, things suddenly made sense,” Kim says. “Before, I was so frustrated and irritated. He wouldn't let me put things in drawers in the bathroom. He had to see everything; otherwise they didn't exist. He couldn't figure out the remote. He'd try to use his cellphone to change the channel."
A 2011–12 “Goodbye Tour,” with the couple's children onstage performing with Glen, drew warm, supportive audiences, but the trek was beset by cancellations and some awkward performances. Offstage, Glen could be enraged and uncooperative.
"We had to make sure nothing upset him,” Kim remembers. “We knew he had triggers."
Save 25% when you join AARP and enroll in Automatic Renewal for first year. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Lessons for caregivers
As Glen's memory deteriorated and his erratic behavior intensified, Kim's burden as caregiver began to overwhelm her. She felt isolated, depressed and exhausted. She cites the analogy of a frog that hops out of boiling water but allows itself to boil to death if cold water is heated slowly.
"My children and I didn't realize we were boiling to death,” she says. “It was so incremental. I never got any rest. He was up and down all night long. Bathing him was a big issue. Bathroom issues are huge. They forget everything. He became combative. We were all at risk.
“We were all so depressed,” she continues, “and depression and stress can make you sick. I didn't want to become the second victim of that disease."
Kim, who later started the CareLiving.org blog to share guidance and support for other caregivers, gradually learned how to survive and thrive. Her advice:
"You've got to conserve yourself,” she says. “If you take care of yourself, you'll be a better caregiver.” Don't hesitate to enlist help from family, friends and professionals, because you can't do it all.
"You also need time for yourself,” she points out. “We became shut-ins. We couldn't go out in public anymore. Make time to rejuvenate, to exercise, to get your hair done, to have coffee with a friend. Caregivers need to continue being who they are. You can't if you're totally absorbed in that other person 24/7. You need time to maintain your sanity, your relationships, your health. You shouldn't feel guilty about having me time.”
And don't put off considering long-term care. In 2014, Glen entered Abe's Garden in Nashville.
"A good, quality memory-care community should be your first choice at the right time, not your last resort,” Kim says. “Instinctively, we all want to take care of our loved ones at home. I did wait too long. People wait until they're in crisis. It's better to do your research ahead of time. It's a lot healthier to be in a good, quality community than with one caregiver day after day in the back bedroom of a home without socialization, therapies or activities."