Bob and Luanne Becker Bob and Luanne Becker
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Bob Becker sits in a wooden chair pulled up close to the TV as his wife, Luanne, inserts a tape into the VCR. It’s a documentary on baseball legend Mel Harder.

Bob leans in, his elbows on his knees, and watches interviews with the likes of Herb Score, Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau. His eyes tear up and Luanne brings him a tissue. Bob pets Buckeye, their mixed-breed rescue dog, without ever taking his eyes off the TV.

Harder, we learn, started with the Cleveland Indians in 1928 and pitched 20 years, stymieing guys like Joe DiMaggio, then coached for another 20, inspiring dozens more. He was a man of “dignity and grace” who would help anyone. He loved the game, but he loved his wife and two girls more. 

The film’s last image is of Harder walking off the field with Charles Nagy — the past and the future. Bob turns to face Luanne, tears running down his face. “Oh, stop it,” she says sweetly. “Don’t you cry.”

Bob made this documentary in 1996. He and Luanne had both quit their jobs and decided to launch a freelance video production company. They each chose one project they’d always wanted to do. For Luanne, it was the art of quilting. Bob was set on Harder. 

Luanne objected: Harder wasn’t that well-known. Why him?

Now, watching the documentary two decades later, Luanne finally knows the answer. Bob was just like him, she thinks. 

Almost five years ago, at the age of 58, Bob was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He began his career in radio at Cleveland State University, where he met Luanne, then went on to work as a reporter for WKYC. He paid his dues at various stops on the dial before landing his own show on WTAM 1100. He may be best known, though, as the guy who picked the winning Ohio Lottery numbers between Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! Along the way, he racked up a slew of awards for reporting on subjects ranging from Cleveland trolleys to racism. 

His was not the booming voice that demands attention. It was warm and confident, inviting you in. Now, it’s all but gone. Alzheimer’s has attacked Bob’s executive function. So it’s hard to know what he’s thinking as he watches the prized Harder documentary.

Tears are running down his face, but there’s a spark in his eyes, too. He has the look of a dad watching his daughter walk down the aisle. 

Is he crying for what he has lost? Does he know what he has lost? 

“Do you miss your work?” I ask.

Bob turns to me, his hands buried in his pockets. Silence.

“Are you sad?” Silence. “Are you happy and sad?”

A beat passes, and Bob says the one word that seems to roll off his lips easily these days. “Yeah.” 

Then, it’s time for lunch. Bob sets out a USA Today in front of him and eats his soup and muffin. He’s happy again, smiling and laughing at Luanne, who tells every story as if she’s a comedian onstage.

This is the way Bob is most of the time. But I was afraid to see him. In fact, I dreaded it. I felt irrationally embarrassed for him, as if the old Bob wouldn’t want to be seen like this

While he was a well-known personality in Cleveland, Bob was a bonafide celebrity at the Lutheran church I grew up attending in Lakewood. In addition to his media fame, he alternated between president and vice president of the congregation (with my dad) every year. As an aspiring journalist, I was even more in awe of him than most.

My parents kept in touch, but I hadn’t seen Bob in years. And, as much as I believed that the Beckers’ story should be told, I did not want to be the one to do it. 

That, experts say, is the most common reaction after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Stay away. It’s a reaction that can shame a person into hiding at home and avoiding people. The shame snowballs into isolation and, for the caregiver, depression. 

Maybe you’ve been lucky and have lived on the fringes of the disease. Just wait. 

Currently, there are 5.4 million people with Alzheimer’s in the United States. By the year 2050, that number is projected to swell to 16 million as the baby boomers age. Bob and the 200,000 others currently living with early-onset Alzheimer’s are merely the warning wave before the tsunami.

“We’re definitely not doing enough to prepare for it,” says Cheryl Kanetsky, vice president of programs and services for the Cleveland area chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “It will definitely contribute to the bankruptcy of Medicare, and it is the most expensive disease there is.”

In 2016, the direct cost to the United States is estimated to be $236 billion. Nearly one in five Medicare dollars is spent on Alzheimer’s. Then there’s the pain and panic it causes families and, especially, caregivers. 

“This thing is going to take us down,” says Luanne. “It takes you down in all sorts of ways.”


The first sign was not when Bob started misplacing things (that was normal). It was when he got really angry about it. 

“I recall him just standing there, swearing, because he couldn’t find his keys,” says Luanne. “He never swore.”

Luanne would ask him to bring a roll of paper towels up from the basement, and he’d come back with toilet paper. 

He started calling his watch a hand clock. He couldn’t seem to dub a DVD correctly anymore. He was having trouble completing his online time sheet at WTAM, where he had hosted a Saturday morning talk show —
No. 1 in its time slot — for 16 years. 

Three days after Christmas 2011 — in the midst of a move from their home of 27 years in Lakewood to Old Brooklyn — Bob had an MRI. It showed significant brain loss. 

In January, they met with a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic and were given a diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s. Luanne felt nauseous, then everything blurred. Bob was quiet. Luanne wasn’t sure he understood the impact. She still isn’t.

Luanne came home and went to bed. When she woke up, it was all still there.

They had just begun working on a documentary on the history of AsiaTown, and she was still working part time for Building Hope in the City, a faith-based nonprofit. How would that all get done? What should she do first? Could Bob still work? For how long? What about money? And the hardest question of all: What would this do to her boys — Bryan, 20, who was away at college in Chicago and Chris, 25, who was just beginning his career in broadcast design for television?

The only way to make it stop was to go to bed. “Whenever the stress got too great,” Luanne says, “I pulled the covers over my head and tried to shut out the world.”

When she and Bob got home from a meeting with a potential client, which had been scheduled before the diagnosis, she knew there was no way they could ever handle it no matter how much they needed the money. So she went to bed.

When Chris found a lump on his cat, Shadow, she went to bed.

And when she realized that Bob would be unable to do long-ago mastered production work on the last video project they would ever do, she went to bed. 

The winter weeks ticked past. Sometimes, Luanne would sit on her front porch and do nothing. Other times she sat on the couch and listened to the birds. They made her think of playing in the backyard during the summer as a child. Escape. 

In a way, that’s what Luanne did in April when she visited the Abbey of Gethsemane, a monastery in Trappist, Kentucky, that welcomes visitors for prayer and reflection. 

Unless she could somehow break free of her depression, she wouldn’t be able to help Bob. For five days, Luanne wandered the grounds in silence, then retreated to her room where the words flooded the page.

Life used to mean growth,

learning, reaching, exploring.

Shrinking is tougher.


Here God soothes my soul.

At home everyone pulls my

soul apart. Stop, please.

But there were also moments when she could see a way out.

In depression depths

I wondered if myself would

return. Glimpses viewed.

All my worries made

by me. Circumstances change —

can I trust, move through?

Luanne returned home and began to heal — and to plan. She tackled legal and financial issues. (She and Bob had taken out long-term care insurance in their late 40s, plus he had a pension and could begin drawing from Social Security.)

Luanne consulted a disability attorney to see if she was obligated to tell Bob’s employers about his Alzheimer’s (she wasn’t), but she knew he wouldn’t be able to work much longer. What would happen, she wondered, if he looked at a ball and couldn’t read the lottery number — on live TV? What was the right time to leave?

Those two questions took care of themselves. Bob lost his job in a round of layoffs at WTAM. Nine months later, he also lost his gig with the Ohio Lottery Commission when his contract was not renewed. He didn’t make an actual mistake on air, but his enthusiasm had vanished and people were noticing.

Yet the disease kept taking more. Bob lost his driving privileges, so he began biking around town to run errands. Then, Luanne started to worry he wouldn’t find his way home, and the bike had to be taken away too. 

She was facing the biggest trial of her life but couldn’t talk to Bob about it and didn’t want to burden her boys. 

Luanne, who had dismissed suggestions to join a support group as “too sad,” was finding out that Alzheimer’s turns life into a maze that you cannot navigate alone. 

She found a group for spouses of the recently diagnosed and — together — they began to figure out how things worked in their new world.


Luanne invites me to lunch at Corky & Lenny’s in Woodmere, where she is meeting three friends from her support group. They sit in a booth at the back of the restaurant, looking like a group of women who should be planning a cruise or a fundraiser. Instead, they talk about how you know when it’s time to put your spouse in a memory care facility. 

Marcia Robson’s husband got his diagnosis eight years ago at age 62 after asking the same question three times in a row at an Easter family gathering. She recently had to place him in a facility after he stopped taking direction from her. “This is not what we chose,” she says. “John was going to retire at 70, and we were going to travel.”

“Where were you going to go?” I ask. 

“Anywhere,” she says desperately. “I’m sad. When I go home alone, I feel like I’m a widow.”

And then there’s this: “All of our friends disappeared because they want John to be who he used to be,” Robson says.

“In our case, that’s what happened too, except for high school friends,” adds Fran Muslovski. Her husband Jack, a former high school biology, anatomy and physiology teacher, was diagnosed in 2012 at age 75. 

She just couldn’t believe Alzheimer’s would affect her husband the same way it did other people. “I didn’t think it was going to happen to this brilliant man,” she says softly. 

Myrna Dettelbach’s husband, Tom, a former president of the Cuyahoga County Bar Association, was diagnosed in 2010 at age 73. With very short-term memory loss, he was recently placed in Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Beachwood. 

“But Tom can sing every song there is in the book,” Dettelbach says proudly.

Longtime acquaintances tell these ladies their husbands “look so good” and their memory loss is a result of normal aging. They dodge the truth and avoid it by staying away.

That’s not what happened to Bob.

Luanne says it’s because she has amazing friends. But those who know her say it’s because Luanne has done amazing things. 

She launched a Facebook group called “Too Young for Alzheimer’s” and started sharing her story. Help came quickly. Neighbors brought meals, someone from a local church came to fix Bob’s bike, friends invited her and Bob to dinner and a high school friend took Bob to the Indianapolis 500.

Luanne and her support group started a co-op. Once a week, a member hosts the caregivers’ loved ones, while the other caregivers get out for a much-needed break. 

Luanne also helped the local Alzheimer’s Association design “We-Connect Cards” caregivers can hand to service people in the community. The cards offer tips on how to interact with dementia sufferers: Talk slowly. Give instructions one at a time. Make eye contact.

Luanne will simply not allow the stigma-shame cycle to keep her from giving Bob one of the things people with Alzheimer’s need most — interaction and engagement with the world. 

“Isolation isn’t good for anyone,” she says.

In September alone, Bob attended an Indians game, seven art sessions at the Carolyn L. Farrell Foundation in Westlake, the St. John Cantius Polish Festival, the Geauga County Fair, the African Safari Wildlife Park in Port Clinton, Maria’s Field of Hope in Avon, four movies, Mapleside Farms in Brunswick, Euclid Beach Park Family Fun Days, a church in Chagrin Falls with friends and several restaurants for dinner. 

He and Luanne also celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary in downtown Cleveland and took a two-night trip to Pine Lake Lodge in Salesville, Ohio, as a way to keep Bob’s travel skills intact before they go to Chicago in January for their son Bryan’s wedding. 

“We use lots of Groupons,” notes Luanne. 

The spouses also checked off items on their bucket list. It only had two goals, but they were big: Go to Alaska and build a log cabin. 

In 2014, the couple spent 16 days traveling on land and by cruise ship in Alaska. They saw bears, eagles, moose and bison. Bob bonded with a dog that looked like Buckeye at their bed and breakfast. 

“He also thought the glaciers were really cool,” says Luanne.

That same year, they built their modified log cabin. “Whenever we were on vacation, we were always sitting outside,” Luanne says. So they built just the facade of a cabin in their backyard, complete with a porch, screen door, windows, rocking chairs and a fire pit. 

It was a place they could go with the newspaper, some music and maybe a couple of beers. “We’d go sit out there and just kind of talk,” she says.

Bob Becker's Journalist Badges

 Bob Becker was an award-winning journalist.

Bob Becker's Emmys


There are funny moments, too.

Once, very early in his diagnosis before anyone knew, Bob was sitting in church when someone tapped him on the shoulder. They needed help ushering congregants to the front of the church for communion.

Luanne shrunk in her seat. Oh my gosh, this is not good.

Bob went to the front of the church just fine, but instead of moving from row to row in an orderly fashion, he started picking people randomly to take communion. 

“What I was learning is that it just doesn’t matter that much,” Luanne says.

Luanne thought Bob’s personality had taken a negative turn after three incidents in the year following his diagnosis. Once, he mowed the backyard and, when Luanne asked him to finish and mow the front, he just walked away down the street.

The second happened a few months later when Luanne asked him to help shovel the drive. “I would shovel a row, and he would shovel and put the snow on top of my row,” she remembers.

The last incident occurred when Luanne and Bob were picking up free bricks from someone’s house for a new garden near their log cabin. Bob simply refused to pick up any bricks and made Luanne do all the work. 

“I was really angry,” she says. 

Bob got angry back and wouldn’t get in the car. Luanne had to call the police for help.

At his next medical visit, Luanne explained Bob’s recent behavior to his doctor. He just started laughing and laid out the obvious to Luanne. “He doesn’t want to do any work anymore. He’s done doing things like that.”

Within a week, Luanne had quit the volunteer work she and Bob did together and found more respite help so she didn’t need to drag him around on errands.

Then there was the time Bob was enrolled in a research study. One of the side effects of the drug was dark blue urine that stained everything it touched — even porcelain.

Luanne did the only thing she could. “I started traveling with bleach,” she says with a laugh.


Bob is having a bad day.

When Luanne walks into the senior care center to pick him up, he’s staring at an open book in front of him on a table, his hands folded in his lap. He will barely look at her.

The room is noisy and Bob is, in Luanne’s words, “done for the day.” It’s a fine line, she explains. Bob doesn’t do well if he’s bored but being overstimulated can be just as bad. What’s more, they have to go from here to a memorial service for one of their new friends. She takes Bob’s hand and leads him out to the parking lot. 

In the car, she touches her forehead to Bob’s and smiles. She puts in a CD made for Bob by his former radio co-host, Luther Heggs, featuring funny moments from their shows. Bob laughs and smiles. He’s back. 

These are the kinds of moments that people who love Bob share with him now. 

Luanne loves the mornings. “We will just get together and joke with each other, and I’ll kind of tickle him.”

Bryan, the Beckers’ younger son, works in Chicago as a sound designer. So when he comes home, he tries to spend as much time with his dad — in the moment — as possible, waiting till he gets home to “unpack and reflect on” what’s happening.

They used to golf together, a shared passion because “we’re both so bad,” laughs Bryan. That stopped about a year after the diagnosis, but they still go to movies together. And then there are the voices.

Bob has always been known for his dry sense of humor and his spot-on impersonations. He did Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Dick Feagler and Bob Feller. 

“Even through the diagnosis, he maintained a lot of his goofy voices,” Bryan says. “Now we’ll sort of do those voices back and forth.” 

Sometimes, it’s just strong Southern accents. Sometimes it’s just Mel Brooks quotes.

When he’s with Bob, Heggs likes to play the songs he knows his friend enjoys — tunes like “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” by Bubble Puppy or “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” by the Electric Prunes. 

“He loves that music from the ’60s, especially garage bands,” Heggs says. “As soon as he hears the guitar riff, he’ll start beating the dashboard.”

One shared joke between the co-hosts and their radio listeners is an audio clip of Jack Lemon with something stuck in his throat from the movie The Odd Couple

“It was the weirdest sound effect,” Heggs says. “And to this very day Bob will do it.”

At times like these, Heggs feels closest to his friend of nearly four decades. “The things that seem to touch him the most are things that go back to his creative side,” Heggs says. “It triggers something deep inside him. I can see him try to get the words out. I just wish I knew what was going on inside his head. There’s still a lot of Bob in there.”

Cheryl Behm attended Lutheran schools with Bob from kindergarten through high school. As an adult, she was in a church Bible study with him and Luanne. She’s a nurse and her mother had dementia. So she knew how to keep probing until she found a way to connect. She nailed it with two phrases they used to say in high school — “Right on” and “We are great. We are fun. We are the class of ’71.”

“He chimed in on at least half of that whole phrase,” she says. “That really surprised me.” 

But so much is turning off too. 

“Every couple of months you have to get to know a new dad,” says Bryan.

Before the diagnosis, Heggs used to imagine the future with Bob. “I thought we’d be the old guys having lunch together and telling the same stupid stories,” he says. “He was the one guy I could sit and just talk to, and that’s just gone. It’s heartbreaking.”

Luanne is able to talk about having to put Bob in a place with specialized memory care soon and even his memorial service (more like a party, maybe held in Lakewood Park) without crying. But there is one loss that brings her to tears.  

“Thinking about Bryan getting married,” she says. “Bob would have been an incredible grandparent.” 


Even after days spent talking with Luanne and hanging out with Bob, I still have questions. Everyone has questions, it turns out. Science can only answer some of them.

When you sit with Bob in a group, he laughs, smiles and nods — usually at the right times. He gives knowing looks with his eyes. He cracks his knuckles loudly, then looks up to see everyone’s reaction. 

He is so well-liked that, when he walks into his weekly art class for people with dementia at the Farrell Foundation, his fellow students cheer and start clapping. 

How is it that he has forgotten how to shave but holds the door open for me, then politely nods, as I walk past?

Kanetsky, of the local Alzheimer’s Association, attempts to explain. It’s well known that long-term memory is much stronger than short-term memory in this disease. For a lot of people, social skills are stronger than anything. 

“Bob was responding to how he was brought up,” she says. “That a man’s a gentleman and opens a door. That was laid down in his foundational learning. It goes even further back than learning to shave.”

In general, it’s the strongest influences and pulls that stay with a person. For a veteran, it might be war memories. A woman who especially loved being a mother might imagine she hears her baby crying.

Bob, she says, just loved people. “That’s where he excelled,” Kanetsky says. “That’s what you’re seeing still. He’s able to put it forward.”

I tell her how, initially, I was anxious about seeing Bob again and writing about what he’d lost, who he’d become.

Instead of valuing a person for their achievements or abilities, she says, we must learn to value the inherent person. Her advice is the chorus that Luanne and all those who love Bob have been singing through their actions. 

“You have to just meet them in the moment,” she says. 

Luanne is the first to admit that trait was not her strength before Alzheimer’s. Her life was fast-paced and organized. She spent decades working to help refugees, the poor and children. You had to keep up or get out of her way.

Now she lives in what she calls Alzheimer’s World. Time moves slowly. There is nothing but the moment.

“It’s hard, because people think our life is less,” she says. “I don’t know that it’s less. It’s just different. What we fill our days with feels more important than what we filled our days with before, when we filled them with jobs and accomplishments.”

These days end with Bob and Luanne putting their foreheads together and saying a prayer. Bob likes that.

Part of her job, Luanne thinks, is to prepare her husband for his next stage. 

So she asked him a question recently: “Do you believe in Jesus?”

“Yesss,” Bob replied emphatically.

Luanne knows that he might not be able to say that someday soon — or even remember it — but that it will still be true.

Back in the monastery, months after the diagnosis, Luanne wrote about her and Bob’s world “shrinking.” Now, she knows it’s just transitioning.

“He’s not afraid of death,” Luanne says. “We’re still on a journey. He’s still on a journey.”  

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