Photo: Cindy Seigle
The NFL announced this week that it will support a foundation for ex-players called the Players’ Outreach Program. The program was started by a woman named Gay Culverhouse; her family used to own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In a New York Times story about the announcement, Gay talked about the awful poverty in which some ex-NFL players live out their lives.
“We look for the players who do not attend retired-player meetings, who do not have a TV, who do not remember they were once heroes on a ball field,” Culverhouse said.
“We locate players in trailers with no power or water. I have been overwhelmed at what I have found — one expects arthritic joints and hip replacements, but what I did not foresee was the long line of mental disabilities.”
On the Player Outreach Program Web site we found more alarming tales of impoverished players who’d fallen to illness.
Here’s testimony one ex-players wife, Eleanor M. Perfetto, Ph.D., M., gave to Congress in 2008 about her husband’s mental breakdown:
My husband, Ralph Wenzel played as an offensive guard in the NFL for seven seasons. He retired in 1974 and became a high school- and college-level physical education teacher and football coach. In 1995 — over 20 years after his retirement from the NFL — my husband began having vague and disconnected symptoms: depression, general uneasiness and anxiety, always losing things like his wallet or checkbook. Today we recognise those symptoms as resulting from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In the following years, Ralph began to suffer obvious memory loss and confusion. In the fall of 1999, 10 years ago, at the age of 56, Ralph was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a condition known to progress to Alzheimer’s disease.
Ralph’s condition did progress over the last 10 years to full dementia related to CTE. I can’t tell you on what day his condition flipped from MCI to dementia. However, in those 10 years, he lost his ability to work, drive a car, play golf, read the biographies he loved, cook gourmet meals, and enjoy a glass of wine. He can no longer dress, bathe, or feed himself. He lost his dry sense of humour. He lost his warm, quiet personality. He lost it all. Almost three years ago, I had to place my husband in an assisted living facility for dementia patients and he still resides there today. But frankly, my husband no longer has a life, certainly not one he’d want for himself.
I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else.
In the almost 15 years since our ordeal began, Ralph and I went through many ups and downs. In those first few years, we had no idea what was wrong. You have a spouse who is aloof, disconnected, irresponsible, whose personality is changing, who may be hostile and you don’t know why. It made life difficult and I admit that before Ralph’s diagnosis, I considered divorce. The diagnosis was frightening, but it also was a relief. I finally understood why these things were happening; it’s not me, it’s not him, it’s an illness.
After the diagnosis, I cared for Ralph at home for over 7 years and I learned. I learned about living wills, power of attorney, guardianship, social security, home care, adult medical day care, psychiatric hospital admissions, assisted living, etc., etc. I was on my own.
While these experiences are similar to those of any family member caring for someone with dementia, I also learned that our country’s current infrastructure in adult day care and long-term care facilities are based on providing services for your grandmother, not for a 6 foot 2 inch, 225 pound man. For example, I bought a full size bed for Ralph because he did not fit in the twin bed his facility provided. He has caregivers that I have hired, in addition to those who work for the facility, to insure he gets individual attention and extra exercise during the day to keep him from jogging around the halls and jeopardizing other residents’ safety. Old habits die hard. And what is particularly hard to overcome is that staff at these facilities are afraid, and in some cases rightly so.
My husband was lucky in one way. He has a wife who is educated, a wife who works in healthcare and can battle the healthcare system, one that has a very good job with a company that offers excellent health benefits, and she also happens to be a very pushy broad. So, Ralph has fared well because he has a strong advocate.
But, there are many players out there in the situation Ralph and I were in 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, and they need help. They need the relief of understanding what is going on and help wading through the system. I speak with many NFL retired player spouses on a regular basis and I work to help them find doctors, assisted living facilities, and other services. Often, I simply just talk to distraught women at the end of their rope and help them get through it. They turn to people like me because they have no place to go and they are finding their way, the same way I did years ago.
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