Near the end, when the disease tightened its grip and transformed the man into a shell of his former self, Jim Leslie had become a stranger in his own life.
He had begun exhibiting signs of dementia in the late 1990s, and his condition worsened during the next few years. He was often irrational and belligerent, and in a later stage he crossed the line into violence. He forgot the identity of those closest to him, including his two granddaughters.
He even showed confusion about the woman he had married more than a half-century earlier.
“I don’t know who she is,” Leslie sometimes said of his wife of 53 years, “but she takes really good care of me.”
Marjorie Leslie had taken care of her husband for years, through quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery, colon cancer and gall bladder removal, but by last Nov. 14, the man she was caring for was no longer the man she married.
That morning, Jim grabbed a kitchen knife and threatened her. When he failed to respond to her pleas, Marjorie retrieved a pistol Jim had purchased years before for her safety. He advanced and continued his threats. She fired two shots into his abdomen. He died about an hour later at the hospital. That same day, Marjorie was charged with second-degree murder.
The Leslies’ tragedy illustrates the brutal effects of Alzheimer’s, an incurable disease that affects about 4.5 million Americans — one in 10 over age 65 and nearly half over age 85. Alzheimer’s places intense stress on caregivers and is often hardest on those left behind.
One person left behind was Phil Leslie, the only child of Jim and Marjorie. Phil is an editor with the Instructional Materials Laboratory in the MU College of Education and a graduate of the MU School of Journalism. Through the lens of hindsight, he talked about his parents, their past and his father’s tragic death.
“I didn’t understand the depth of the problem for a long time,” he said.
The Leslies’ family physician first noticed Jim’s condition in 1997, even before Marjorie or Phil noticed anything wrong. By 2000, Jim had begun showing signs of forgetfulness, particularly with names. He was belligerent at times, accusing Marjorie of stealing money or overmedicating him. After Jim’s death, Phil discovered that his father had struck his mother.
“He wouldn’t have done that if he had been in his right mind,” Phil said.
He brought up the idea of putting his father in an assisted-care home, but Marjorie was adamantly against it for two reasons. First, when she was a child, two of her aunts were placed in a nursing home, and she remembered the appalling conditions she saw there.
The other reason was that Marjorie was used to being a caregiver.
As a young woman, she cared for her mother who was stricken with congestive heart failure. Later, in the 1980s, Marjorie helped her husband through a variety of illnesses. She was comfortable in the role of caregiver, and even as Jim’s dementia tested the limits of her endurance, she downplayed the stress.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but she did keep some things from me,” Phil said.
Penny Braun, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Mid-Missouri Chapter, said it’s not uncommon for caregivers to seldom speak of their struggles .
“Caregivers can mask the extent of their stress and take a stiff-upper-lip attitude,” she said. “I don’t know anything more stressful than caregiving for an Alzheimer’s patient.”
Braun cited several factors that make Alzheimer’s especially difficult on caregivers. The average duration of the disease is eight years, and Alzheimer’s is a progressive illness, meaning the patient becomes worse with time. Braun said Alzheimer’s can be an “isolating factor,” keeping people who don’t know about the disease away from caregivers.
“That’s one of the reasons the chapter was founded — we can’t stop the disease, but we can help caregivers go through it more easily,” she said.
The Mid-Missouri Chapter offers several support groups each month where Alzheimer’s caregivers can share information, learn caregiving skills and build a network of support among those facing similar challenges. The chapter also provides funding for respite, an interval of rest for caregivers.
“Caregiving for someone losing their faculties is more stressful than caring for a disease where someone can say ‘thank you,’ ” Braun said.
Phil Leslie said he wasn’t aware of external support groups during his father’s illness.
“Looking back, I sure wish we had taken advantage of them,” he said.
He remembered his father as an outgoing man who liked to tell stories and jokes. In his youth, Jim loved sports and even played catcher for a minor-league baseball team in Texas. In 1936, on the recommendation of his sister, he took a job in the analytical chemistry lab at N.L. Industries in St. Louis, where he would remain for the next 42 years. He served for four years in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was stationed primarily in Alaska and saw some action in Africa.
Upon his return to St. Louis, he met Marjorie Phillips, who had taken a job as a chemical technician with the same company. The two began dating in 1948 and married two years later. Phil Leslie was born in February 1951.
Growing up in Jefferson County,Phil said his parents were “constantly interested in my development.” Marjorie stayed at home to raise Phil.
“She took care of the house,” he said. “Dad and I didn’t have to lift a finger.”
After her son went off to college in Columbia, Marjorie rejoined the work force in 1972, in the microbiology lab at Missouri Baptist Hospital in west St. Louis County. She retired in 1983, and the Leslies moved to Columbia the following year to be near their son and his family.
They played golf at many of the local venues and especially enjoyed the nine-hole course at Stephens College. Jim joined a small group of model railroaders. Marjorie cooked and took care of the house. They both enjoyed watching their granddaughters grow. Jim and Marjorie seemed content in the twilight of their years.
Then, at age 80, dementia began to afflict Jim Leslie.
Marjorie Leslie’s case file in Boone County Circuit Court contains four letters written to Judge Gene Hamilton asking for leniency in her sentencing. One letter, written by the Leslies’ former physician, describes Jim Leslie’s “bouts of paranoid anger” and “near rages.”
“It was apparent that Marjorie Leslie had reason to fear him,” the doctor wrote.
At 8:56 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2003, Marjorie called 911, saying she shot her husband after he tried to attack her with a knife. Jim Leslie was pronounced dead at University Hospital after receiving two gunshot wounds to his abdomen from a .38-caliber revolver. Marjorie was charged with second-degree murder, a charge later amended to voluntary manslaughter.
After the shooting, Marjorie was evaluated at Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, Biggs Forensic Center and Hearnes Unit at Fulton State Hospital before being released on her own recognizance to her son. On July 12, Judge Hamilton sentenced her to five years of supervised probation.
“Everybody I talked to in the community was pulling for us, for my mom,” Phil said.
During the sentencing hearing, he took the stand on his mother’s behalf, testifying that his father would have taken the lead in asking for leniency in her sentencing. He defended his words after the fact, saying it wasn’t just a manufactured statement to impress the court.
“If you knew my dad, you’d know he would definitely be in Mom’s corner,” Phil said. “He was a gentle, forgiving man who believed you did what you could for the people left behind, to leave them better off.”
Phil said he has not talked to his mother about the events of Nov. 14, 2003.
“I told Mom, ‘Whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen,’” he said.
According to Phil, his mother is doing “as well as we could expect.” She is back in the home she shared with Jim for 19 years. She visits with her neighbors daily and frequently sees her son and his family.
“But Mom is lonely,” Phil said. “She deeply misses the man who was her husband. She loved him all the years of their marriage. She misses the man she married.”