For more than 40 years, the late Herman McCombs was the face of local auctioneering, known for his booming voice and ability to run a top-notch auction.
McCombs never missed an auction for We Care, which he had been doing since the early ‘80s, up until last November when he lost a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. But even when the disease had stolen most of his memories and mental functions, he never forgot how to conduct an auction. It was his passion up until the end, said Debby McCombs, his widow, who said he’d run auctions in his sleep.
“He did the We Care auction every year, and this last year, in 2019, we thought he still might be able to pull off selling a special wreath that our family did because, in his sleep, even toward the end, he could run an auction and did not miss a beat. He was right on,” said Debby.
However, McCombs’ health declined rapidly last fall, and he was unable to participate. He died on Nov. 26 at age 83, just two weeks after the We Care Trim-a-Tree auction
Now, his family is raising awareness to Alzheimer's disease and funds for the cause through their team, “ALZ You Need Is Love and a Pair of Sneakers,” for the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s on Oct. 3.
McCombs was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013 after a mental test with a neurologist showed signs of the disease the causes brain cell connections and the cells themselves to degenerate and die, destroying memory and other important mental functions.
However, his family didn’t see serious signs of the disease until around 2015 and 2016 when McCombs began asking many of the same questions over and over and making mistakes he never would have made, like putting oil in the gas tank of his tractor.
Despite recommendations from doctors, Debby made the decision early on that she would keep her husband at home and that it wasn’t an option to have someone else care for him. Her daughter, Michelle King, and granddaughter, Taylor Chapel, supported her decision and told her that they would be right there with her, helping to take care of McCombs.
“We decided that we’re all in this together,” said King. “We’ll just be there with you, and that was that.”
Though Alzheimer’s disease is known as a slowly progressing, irreversible neurodegenerative brain disease with an average clinical duration of eight to 10 years, McCombs’ progressed fairly quickly once he began showing signs of the disease.
His family said they didn’t know anything about Alzheimer’s, which may have caused McCombs more stress early on. Since Debby now was taking care of her husband, she decided to move into a condo so she wouldn’t have to also take care of her yard. However, she didn’t realize that those who have the disease don’t like change, and McCombs didn’t adapt well.
He’d often complain that he wanted to go home, and he ran from the home twice, which wasn't unusual for Alzheimer’s patients. One time, he was found bloodied with broken ribs, hanging onto a mailbox on the side of a road.
The situation wore on Debby, and at one point when she was feeling helpless she found an ad in the Kokomo Perspective advertising an Alzheimer's disease support group at the hospital. She began attending, and she said what she learned “literally changed the whole path of everything.”
Debby was connected with the Alzheimer’s Association, which she learned had a 24/7 free hotline. When McCombs forgot who his wife was for the first time, Debby used that hotline.
“I used it the first time that he didn’t know who I was momentarily. It broke my heart, and it was in the middle of the night. I called them, and they talked me through it and calmed me down,” Debby said.
She also was connected to Area Five, which helped her get a Medicaid waiver and made her house handicapped-accessible at no cost to her.
The family was given cards that they could pass discretely to servers at restaurants or in other public places that explained that they were with a person with Alzheimer’s and that Alzheimer’s patients could be unpredictable in what they said and did.
People with Alzheimer’s, Debby said, revert to being child-like in many ways, and the family had to adapt to McCombs' new normal. During one of the support groups, Debby was given a piece of advice that she, King, and Chapel took to heart.
“Someone made the statement, and it’s so true: ‘When he could no longer function in our world, we joined him in his world,’ and that’s exactly what we did,” Debby said.
Chapel enjoyed being in her grandfather's world. She had a playdate with him every day.
“He was fun. It’s very important to keep them stimulated, and they love to be touched. He loved holding hands. He loved to take walks. He loved to sit outside on the back porch. He loved to sing. We danced. We put Richard Simmons on, and we exercised with him. We’d act goofy with him. We had an Easter egg hunt for him for Easter, and he just thought that was the greatest thing,” Chapel said.
Despite the challenges of taking McCombs out in public, which often included him wetting himself and his caregivers having to assist him in men’s restrooms, he enjoyed it, and they did it up until the end.
They took him on his last vacation to Tennessee, and they said he knew he was on vacation and enjoyed himself. They went to Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and when they were in the elevation leaving, McCombs made himself known.
“We got in the elevator, and he always ended his auctions thanking people for coming. ‘Don’t forget to pay your bill. Thanks for coming,’" said Debby. "So we were all on the elevator, and it’s real quiet. Out of nowhere, he says, ‘I want to thank you all for coming and gathering here today.’ And we just laughed because you had to. You had to laugh to keep from crying."
A toll on the caregivers
Debby, who had been married to McCombs for 23 years, said it was heart-wrenching to watch McCombs’ decline. She remembered having to take him to the license branch for him to surrender his license, as he no longer was able to drive, and later having to change her legal status from married to widow.
“It was heartbreaking because he was an articulate, neat, professional Christian, highly-respected auctioneer in the community, and to see him go down to not able to dress himself and can’t bathe himself was hard. I had to take on the responsibility, and I didn’t want to,” she said.
King said despite always trying to find the positives in the situation, it wore on the entire family. However, she said they were lucky to have each other’s support throughout.
There were times when King would say she didn’t know if she could do it anymore, and she would have to walk away. That’s when Chapel or Debby would step in.
“When one of us was weak, two of us were strong, and that’s kind of what helped us to get through that,” said King.
For Chapel, she felt the disease was harder on the caregivers than McCombs who often was oblivious to the situation, but he kept them laughing. They had breakfast together nearly every morning, and McCombs was known to say, after clearing his plate, “I wouldn’t eat here again.”
And he was known to dress in Debby’s clothes.
“I would get so frustrated because I would be in here in the bedroom getting dressed, and I knew he was going to come out in my blue jeans with the rhinestones on the pockets. But you know what? You pick your battles, and he looked pretty good in them,” Debby said, laughing.
In the end, Area Five arranged for hospice care for McCombs who later died at home as Debby had wanted.
A new chapter
In a sense, the family said McCombs was like their child for so long that his death left a huge hole in their lives. They devoted so much to taking care of him and trying to keep him as happy and entertained as possible that they felt lost after his death, King said.
They continued attending the support groups in the hopes of helping other caregivers by providing their perspectives, having gone through it themselves.
A piece of advice they continued to share with others was “every day is a good day.”
“Every day is a good day. Even a bad day is a good day,” King said. “There were times when we just thought, ‘Man, how much more can we do? How much more can we take?’ We felt broken at times, and I would take that day back in a heartbeat. The worst day we had with him, I would take back, and so would my mom.”
Now, the family is continuing to raise awareness of the disease by participating in the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s, now for the second year, as the disease continues to affect more and more families. Between 2000 and 2018, deaths from Alzheimer’s had increased by 146 percent, and it’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
They hope to raise as much funds as possible for the Alzheimer’s Association so that a cure hopefully can be developed. Currently, there’s no cure for the disease, only medication that can slightly slow the symptoms.
Walk to End Alzheimer’s
This year’s walk looked markedly different than past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of having a large group that would walk together as usual, participants this year will be walking in their own neighborhoods.
Despite a new format, Committee Chair Phil Petty said he’s looking forward to a successful year.
“I wanted to have the theme for this year’s walk be 'A Walk to Remember,' and this isn’t exactly what I had in mind to make it a walk to remember. But it is definitely going to be a walk to remember because this is unlike anything we’ve ever done before,” said Petty.
Participants still can sign up to be a part of a team act.alz.org/walk, or they can start their own team. Those with their own teams can start Facebook fund raisers by using the Alzheimer’s Association mobile app.
Petty said the online fund raisers have been an asset.
“You end up raising funds and awareness that you would have never thought of before and reaching friends and family members that you probably wouldn’t have thought of asking before. But they see you on there, and they’re like, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’ and it’s pretty cool,” he said.
This year, the fund-raising goal for the walk is $93,500, and 26 percent of the goal already has been reached. Currently, 154 participants are registered among 52 teams.
On the day of the walk, the aim is to have participants saturate the city.
“It will be everywhere. It’s on every sidewalk, every track, every trail. It’s all over the place. Wherever you are, you’re doing it there. They’ll be able to take some video, take some pictures and things like that,” Petty said.
That footage will be complied and become available on the “main stage,” online. Petty encouraged people to join the “Kokomo Walk to End Alzheimer’s” page on Facebook, as well as “like” the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Indiana Chapter page to keep up with the latest happenings and to see videos and photos the day of the walk.