Remembering Glen Campbell: His Wife Shares Her Story of Caregiving During His Alzheimer’s Battle
As seen in Parade Magazine
JULY 27, 2018
By M.B. Roberts
Glen and Kim Campbell at Abe’s Garden in Nashville (Marty Stuart)
It was a hot August day at Abe’s Garden memory care facility and residential community in Nashville. The sunny morning had rolled into an overcast evening as the staff prepared dinner for the residents and some visitors. The late afternoons were typically quiet, but this day, two musicians—a violinist and a cellist from the Nashville Symphony—set up in a common area and soft music began to play just outside the room of one of the residents, country music star Glen Campbell.
“We opened the doors so the music would flutter into his room,” says Kim Campbell, 60, Glen’s wife of 34 years. “He had his family holding his hand, he had music filling the room. It was beautiful, tranquil and serene.”
The next day, on August 8, 2017, Glen, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, died at age 81.
A Wild Ride to Stardom
Glen Travis Campbell, the seventh son of 12 children, grew up on a farm—his father was a sharecropper—near Delight, Arkansas, about 90 miles southwest of Little Rock. When he was 4 years old, a $5 three-quarter-size Sears, Roebuck and Co. guitar arrived via mail order from his uncle, and his hands, calloused from picking cotton, immediately took to the strings. By age 6, Glen was performing on local radio and by his teens he was playing in bars in town. In 10th grade, he quit school and moved to Albuquerque, where he played in his uncle’s band.
The early 1960s found Glen Campbell in Los Angeles working with a group of session musicians called the Wrecking Crew. He played on records for Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys (including “Pet Sounds” in 1966) and even filled in for Brian Wilson on a Beach Boys tour in 1964 and ’65.
In the later ’60s, Glen began charting his own hits, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman.” The catchy songs and his boyish good looks led to TV and movie gigs—a starring role opposite John Wayne in the 1969 movie True Grit and his own show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on CBS from 1969 to 1972.
“Glen was born with music in him,” says his longtime banjo player, singer-songwriter Carl Jackson. “He was the most talented vocalist I ever heard in my life. He had perfect pitch and the greatest control of anybody I’ve ever seen. And he was so at ease. To him, performing and playing and singing was just like falling off a log.”
Looking for Love…
Over the years, the hits (“Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights”) and the accolades—six Grammys, 1968 CMA Entertainer of the Year, three American Music Awards and, later, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award and a Career Achievement Award from the Academy of Country Music—kept coming.
So did the marriages.
Glen was married to Diane Kirk from 1955 to 1959 (they had a daughter, Debby), to Billie Jean Nunley from 1959 to 1976 (they had three children, daughter Kelli and sons Travis and Kane) and to Sarah Davis from 1976 to 1980 (they had a son, Dillon). Following his third divorce, Glen briefly and tempestuously dated fellow country star Tanya Tucker.
Then, Carl Jackson set him up on a blind date with the former Kimberly Woolen, a dancer, whom he married in 1982 and often credited for straightening out his life.
“Glen wouldn’t have made it through those times without her,” says Jackson. “I’ll go as far sometimes as to say Kim saved his life.”
Glen and Kim were together over three decades. He continued to release an album almost every year, and they had three children (sons Cal, 35, and Shannon, 33, and daughter Ashley, 31). Although they led a relatively quiet life, the couple weathered some tough times, as Glen, who had struggled with drug and alcohol problems in the past, had several well-publicized relapses.
The biggest challenge of their lives, though, would come when the singer was first diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2009, then with Alzheimer’s in early 2011. Although the official diagnosis was a shock, there had been clues that something was off.
“The early signs were forgetfulness, repeating himself,” says Kim, adding that she tried hard to explain them away. “But then he became very demanding. If he came home and I wasn’t there, he’d call me. I’d answer and say, ‘I’m at the grocery store.’ Two minutes later, he’d call again. If I didn’t answer I’d get these really angry messages.
Then, when I got home he would follow me everywhere. If I went into the bedroom, he’d go too. If I went to the bathroom, he’d try to go to the bathroom with me. And if I took my clothes off and got in the shower, he would take his clothes off and get in the shower too.” She pauses and says with a laugh, “So there was an upside.”
At first, Kim adjusted to Glen’s behavior, as quirky as it was. Once she did an experiment and walked around the swimming pool 15 times. Glen followed.
“He was really sweet, never asking why we were doing that,” she says. “He just followed me, like my shadow.”
Reasonable questions like, “Where are my golf clubs?” (“In the garage, honey”) turned into questions like, “What’s a garage?”
Then one day, he got lost coming home. And then it happened again. “That’s when I knew we had to go back to the doctor,” she said.
With all the changes in their lives, one thing remained constant: music.
“Music helped my dad stay active mentally and physically,” says daughter Ashley. “I feel like it helped him stay with us longer.”
Although in later years Glen Campbell’s music no longer seemed to be everywhere, like it did in the 1970s, he had never stopped performing and recording. The year of his diagnosis, he released the album Ghost on the Canvas and announced that he would continue with planned shows. Incredibly, the tour, which included kids Cal, Shannon and Ashley in the band, ultimately expanded from its original five-week run to 151 shows in 15 months. And even more remarkable, the family agreed to be filmed on the road for the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, directed by the actor-director James Keach.
“It was so important to Glen to do the film,” says Kim. “He really had a passion for letting people know what living with Alzheimer’s is like. He understood that he had [the disease] and knew that he’d announced it publicly. He chose to keep working.”
The movie shared the joy and triumph of Glen’s performances. It revealed how he relied on a teleprompter for lyrics and sometimes became confused selecting the proper key but also, amazingly, how he played melodies to near perfection. It also highlighted the family’s strain.
“Being in the hotel room with him before the show was really challenging because he was in the early to middle stage of Alzheimer’s,” said Kim, who is seen in the film explaining to Glen over and over where they are and what they’re doing, and battling with him not to use a knife or a razor blade to dislodge something from between his teeth. “But when he walked onstage, he just played right to the cameras. It was like a miracle every night.”
Despite still being able to play and sing, Glen struggled more and more as the tour went on. Everyone knew it was time to take a bow, and his final performance was in Napa, California, on November 30, 2012. He released three more albums, See You There (2013), Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2015) and Adios (2017).
After the tour, Glen tried to live at home, but even though Kim had plenty of help, caring for him proved to be too much, she says.
“Our son Shannon, daughter Ashley, her friend Amanda and my nephew Matthew were all living with us, taking turns in teams of two to take care of Glen,” says Kim. “But it was still super-tough.”
Glen had become combative—getting mad and throwing and breaking dishes on the floor. Kim installed childproof locks on the cabinets, but Glen became angry and tore a cabinet off the wall.
“This was a 6-foot-tall strong man and we lived on a busy street. I fenced the back property. I sectioned off the stairs so he wouldn’t fall. I tried to protect him any way I could, but I was at my wit’s end.”
Kim admits she was depressed. She also saw the toll Glen’s deteriorating condition was taking on their children, who were in their late 20s and, to a large degree, had put their lives on hold to help their parents.
“None of us had quality of life,” she says. “Glen didn’t. The kids didn’t. I didn’t. We were trapped by Alzheimer’s.”
Kim’s next move was to visit the newly opened residential community at Abe’s Garden in Nashville, where a few months prior, she had discussed the possibility of respite care or in-home care for her husband. But that time had passed.
“In-home care was out of the question because I already had a team and it wasn’t working for us,” she says. “Glen needed a specialized environment with people trained to take care of him.”
Abe’s Garden in Nashville was just that place. The nonprofit, established in 2007, is a model of residential, day and community-based programs for people with Alzheimer’s. It’s also a research site in partnership with Vanderbilt University’s Center for Quality Aging. But what’s most striking is the essence of the place—it feels like home, Kim says. In fact, the facility’s three unique households, where residents are housed based on their specific needs, incorporate gardens, activity rooms and open kitchens—and all the programs are designed to evoke memories.
As much as it seemed like the right fit, Kim still faced another hurdle: overcoming the stigma that she was “putting her husband in a home.” Ruth Drew, director of information and support services at the Alzheimer’s Association, says this is a common problem. “I’ve talked to many people over the years who said, ‘My husband and I promised each other we’d never put each other in a nursing home.’ But when we are in the circumstances of providing around-the-clock care for someone, we learn that it’s not always possible to give good 24-hour care at home.”
Kim knew this firsthand. But Glen’s celebrity meant that Kim and her family received horrible comments—even death threats—mostly on the internet. But every night when she went to have dinner with her husband or—before he lost his ability to speak—heard him say how grateful he was, Kim was reminded that she’d done the right thing.
“I didn’t just put Glen anywhere,” she says. “Our family joined this community. I know these people, I know their families. It was such a blessing to us, to have that peace of mind that no matter what time of day it was, Glen was being checked on and cared for and loved.”
Once Glen had moved in to Abe’s Garden, Kim had a chance to exhale, ever so briefly. She says during this time, more than any other time in her life, she drew on her faith to move forward.
“I don’t know how I could have walked through this without my relationship to the Lord,” she says. “My husband was lost in dementia; it consumed my life. So I had to make a choice to be happy and productive.”
Kim created a support group for people with spouses with Alzheimer’s, started her blog, CareLiving, and, whenever possible, attended ballet classes and her favorite, Dancefix, to take care of herself and relieve stress.
“No one should attempt to go through this alone,” Drew says. “No one can be on duty 24/7 indefinitely. We’re human beings and we can’t hold up to that. Family caregiving takes a toll and there are ways to come through it well by getting information and support.” It’s been nearly one year since Glen Campbell died. Today, Kim Campbell has made it her mission to get the word out about options available to families dealing with Alzheimer’s. She speaks on the subject and is developing a foundation.
“I know how harshly this disease impacts families,” she says. “People were there for me so I want to be there for them. We’re walking through this together.”