Former Huntington Beach Mayor Alvin Coen struggles with Alzheimer's disease

By Huntington Beach Independent

Categories: Neurosciences

Felicia Coen has been married to her husband, Alvin, for 53 years. Yet every day that passes, she feels like she's losing the love of her life.

Alvin Coen, a three-time mayor of Huntington Beach and a local lawyer, was diagnosed withAlzheimer's disease in 2010. For the past several months, his overall state has worsened, Felicia Coen said.

"He's much more fragile and much more frail," she said. "He's got a bad back, so that exacerbates the whole problem."

Felicia, 74, sat across from Alvin, 77, in their living room on a recent afternoon. She stared at him, fighting back tears as he quietly took sips from a glass of lemonade.

"I am the wife, yes, but it's such a different feeling and a different role now," Felicia said. "He's being taken away from me, and that personal intimacy is not there anymore."

The Coens are far from alone in their struggle against Alzheimer's disease, one of the most common forms of dementia in which a patient suffers memory loss and has difficulty performing once-routine tasks.

An estimated 5.2 million Americans will suffer from Alzheimer's this year – about 44% of them in their mid-70s to mid-80s, according to the Alzheimer's Assn.

"In Orange County, it's becoming an epidemic," said Dr. Teryn Clarke, aneurologist at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. "Some of that may be due to the fact that people are very cognitively demanding of themselves, so they pick it up earlier than we used to."

September is World Alzheimer's Month, an international campaign to raise awareness of the disease and to focus on ways to reduce the risk.

Factors that could lead to someone developing the condition include diabetes, obesity and lack of exercise, Clarke said. Those with close relatives with Alzheimer's or similar degenerative conditions also are at higher risk, she said.

Alvin Coen's father had Alzheimer's and his sister had Parkinson's disease, Felicia Coen said.
Clarke, who also is the medical director of the Alzheimer's Family Services Center in Huntington Beach, said there is no cure for the disease, though there are medications to slow its progress.
"The best that we can do with [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]-approved therapy is slow down the progression of disorders like Alzheimer's disease," she said. "There are new medications in clinical trial right now that look like they do that to a greater extent, almost looking like they halt the process, but not quite. Hopefully the next round of medication will do that, and hopefully the next round after that will start to reverse the disease."

Clarke said people should be active, both physically and mentally, to reduce the chance of developing the condition or to slow its progress.

"Consistent exercise, socializing and a higher education level are found to decrease the risk," she said.

Alvin Coen — who was Huntington Beach's mayor in 1968, 1972 and 1974 — has been going to the Alzheimer's Family Services Center about twice a week for about a year, Felicia Coen said.
For several hours, he is encouraged to play horseshoes, beanbag toss, bingo and dominoes to exercise his brain, said Giang Huynh, Alvin's social worker.

"He's not actively involved at times, but he was when he first came to us," Huynh said. "Over the year, he'll start to sit and we have to encourage him to participate."

Along with his Alzheimer's diagnosis, Alvin was found to have hydrocephalus, or excessive water in the brain, Felicia Coen said. He also is showing signs of Parkinson's, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.

Felicia said she still struggles to accept that her husband has the conditions. At times she becomes angry.

"It definitely has changed our relationship," she said. "It's very hard to see him in a different light. I love him and I adore him, but it's changed me as a person too. I used to be much more calm. I'm definitely not calmer, and I don't like that about me."

Still, Felicia is happy that he's still standing next to her.

"Thank God he's still awake and still alive," she said. "He's still walking and we still have some type of a life together."