Byrd Institute’s medical experts and resources help world-traveling couple navigate Alzheimer’s journey

Seeking help at the first signs of Betty’s memory loss, the Boysens continue to live each day fully rather than letting the disease define them

“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote.” This famous quote defines Al and Betty Boysen.

The couple, whose relationship spans more than 72 years, has traveled to every continent but Antarctica, including 49 states, leaving Hawaii off the list because as Betty says “it’s a lot like Florida.”

Dr. Amanda Smith (left), director of clinical research at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, speaks with Al and Betty Boysen.

A few years ago, they sold their last motor home after Betty was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Just a mile and a half away from home, Betty began seeing Amanda Smith, MD, the director of clinical research at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute. The Byrd Institute — home to a highly-qualified team of researchers, doctors, clinicians and educators — is a state-of-the-art center at the forefront of Alzheimer’s research and care.

“Al and Betty sought help at the first sign something was wrong,” Dr. Smith said. “Because of that, we were able to intervene right away with medication and preserve some of her memory and daily function, which allowed them to continue to travel for longer than they might have otherwise.”

The Boysens have traveled to to every continent but Antarctica, including 49 of the 50 U.S. states.

A little lost in caring for his wife of seven decades, as her disease progressed, Al searched for help and found the center’s support group a comfort.

“We’ve enjoyed a combination of friendship and information sharing since I started taking advantage of the support group,” said 93-year-old Al, who also supports caregiver education at the Byrd Center through his philanthropy. “Caregivers go through a form of suffering, just like the patient, so the meetings help many of us in different ways.”

“The Boysen’s are making the most of every day,” Dr. Smith said. “They utilize all of the resources, so the disease becomes something that they’re living with rather than what defines them.”

Betty (first row, 9th from left) and Al (top row, 11th from left) met as Class of 1950 students at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa.

A medic and chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during World War II, Al spent time caring for survivors at the Ebensee Concentration Camp in Austria shortly after the war ended.

When Al returned stateside, he enrolled at Cornell College in Iowa. There, he met the woman of his dreams, Betty Cain. Betty worked and lived at the president’s house to pay her way through college. When Al and Betty became engaged, the president’s wife, Arrola Bush Cole, planted a “Matrimonial Maple” tree on campus in their honor.

Al and Betty Boysen on their wedding day: April 2, 1950

The Boysens followed careers in education, with Betty adding an M.A. degree from USF in 1979. She developed a curriculum for special needs children and was named the program’s director when the state of Florida adopted the Florida Diagnostic and Learning System.

Without children of their own, they were foster parents to many. They were so dedicated to foster care that Betty was named the “Foster Mother of the Year” in the early 1960s in their then-hometown of Chicago.

“All through life, we enjoyed the same thing. The first from our families to attend college, we had a lot in common,” Al said.

The Boysens’ first motor home in 1957

Their summers off were spent wandering the globe. In 1986, when Betty retired, they sold their house, placed a few prized possessions in storage and gave the rest away to travel for five years. A few years later, they traveled another two years between owning homes.

Many times they traveled with a cat and christened their 12 different motor homes with clever names like “Big Red” and “Old Blue.”

“A lot of women would probably have hated it. I thought it was wonderful,” 89-year-old Betty said. “We’ve been everywhere and done everything — we think.”

One of the Boysens’ last motor homes

Their travel escapades helped them fill almost three dozen scrapbooks. “It would be hard to look through the books and pick my favorite memory, because we liked so many places and so many people,” Betty said.

They took trips with a South African couple they met on their travels. Once the two couples took a barge tour up and down three rivers in the U.S. “That was fun! We really enjoyed showing the Velthuizens what life was like in our country,” Betty said.

The Boysens continue to work with Dr. Smith to help them navigate this journey of Alzheimer’s.

Betty Boysen relaxes in the motor home with one of the family cats.

For a long time, people thought dementia was just a normal consequence of aging, Dr. Smith said.  “It’s a disease. We can slow it down, we can help preserve cognition and function over years. We can provide education and support for caregivers. We can treat behavior issues and some of the emotional things patients experience that go along with having this. There’s a lot that can be done; people just have to come in and seek help early.”

The Boysens are a shining example of how, by seeking help early, persons living with Alzheimer’s disease can continue to make the most out of life.

The Boysens look through old photo albums from their many trips.

Though the scrapbook pages continue to yellow with age, when Al and Betty sit down to flip through them, a single picture brings back a thousand memories. In the words of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto, “Truly happy memories always live on, shining. Over time, one by one, they come back to life.”

Photo by Torie M. Doll

-Video by Torie M. Doll, USF Health Communications and Marketing