Glen Campbell's Widow Opens Up About the Emotional Final Days of His Alzheimer's Battle: 'There's a Sense of Relief'
“You say goodbye every day for so many years and it is so heartbreaking, so when it finally happens there’s a mixture of emotions," Kim Campbell tells PEOPLE exclusively
Slowly, the sweet memories are crowding out the overwhelming sadness: the day Glen proposed; the births of their children; those evenings at home in Phoenix when Glen would call out, “We’ve got 10 minutes — everybody in the car!” and they’d all drive to the top of Camelback Mountain to watch the sun disappear.
“There was a time when all I could remember was the sickness,” Kim Campbell tells PEOPLE of the Alzheimer’s disease that took her husband Glen Campbell‘s life on Aug. 8. “But now that he’s passed, the good memories are starting to flood back in.”
Three months after the country legend’s death at the age of 81, his wife of 34 years opens up to PEOPLE about their family’s journey, her husband’s final days and her plans for her next mission: helping other families coping with Alzheimer’s through her website, CareLiving.org.
Glen married Kim — his fourth wife — in 1982, when he was 46 and she was 24. He was country music’s Grammy-winning “Rhinestone Cowboy” and she was a dancer. The couple settled in Phoenix and had three children.
“He was 22 years older than me but age didn’t matter between us – he was so young at heart and excited about ordinary things. Life was just beautiful.”
In late 2010, when Glen was 74, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The “Wichita Lineman” embarked on a farewell tour in 2012 that eventually totaled 137 dates, and he allowed a film crew to chronicle his slow decline as the disease took hold. The resulting 2014 documentary, I’ll Be Me, was nominated for an Oscar for best original song for “I’m Not Going to Miss You.”
“The goodbye tour was one of the biggest blessings for Glen that anyone could have imagined. The doctors emphasized to us that music was stimulating for the brain and it would be healthy for him. It was Glen’s choice to do the film. He loved the camera – after all, he did a TV show for years. That was part of who he was. He said it was the most important thing that he was doing at the time. He knew he was trying to show the world what living with Alzheimer’s was like because he wanted to help find a cure.”
After the tour, his health deteriorated as the disease progressed.
“There were times he’d wake up and look at me and go ‘Are we married?’ He quit calling me by my name a long time ago. And then, he grew combative. He gave me a black eye. I’m younger than him and faster than him so I avoided a lot. You don’t take it personally. It’s part of the disease. They lose their ability to communicate verbally so if you are trying to do something they don’t like, they instinctively lash out.”
As his conditioned worsened, Kim and Glen moved to Nashville to be closer to their children.
“I saw a neurologist and he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re trying to do this at home.’ He wanted to have a social worker call me and I was mortified. I had never considered long-term care. There is a terrible stereotype around that, but I didn’t know there were memory care communities designed specifically for people with dementia — and their entire family.”
In 2015, Glen moved into long-term care, eventually settling at Abe’s Garden, a memory care facility in Nashville.
“Glen was cheerful and completely at peace there. I became friends with a lot of the other women whose husbands were there and we tried to encourage and love each other. It was one big family. Every day on my way to ballet class I’d stop and have dinner with Glen and then go dance and work off my depression and then stop in again to give him a kiss goodnight. I make a big point of saying that our family joined a memory care community. It was my community too. It was a comforting place to be.”
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But critics lashed out, accusing her of abandoning her husband.
“Trolls on the Internet said very unkind things, people who don’t know me or what I was dealing with at home. I’d get death threats. They’d say, ‘Why couldn’t she hire a big strong man to handle him?’ But I put child locks on my kitchen cabinets and it would make him mad. He would rip the cabinets off the wall and pull out all the dishes onto the floor. It’s not easy.”
Harder still, two of Glen’s children from previous marriages unsuccessfully sued Kim for control over Campbell’s affairs, alleging that she wasn’t providing him with needed care.
“That’s been harder, probably, than the actual Alzheimer’s itself to be deliberately attacked and sued when I’d been married for almost 35 years to this man and was always good to him. They said I was withholding basic necessities like a toothbrush. The reality was he had plenty of toothbrushes but we kept them locked away because he didn’t know what it was and would rinse them in the toilet. They never asked. They only attacked. To be slandered while he was dying was beyond the pale. It was very painful. ” Although she no longer has contact with Debby or Travis, “I have a great relationship with their children — we’re very close. It’s tragic,” she says of the rift.
(Records were recently filed in Davidson Probate Court in Nashville alleging children Kelly, Travis and Wesley were “specifically excluded” from a 2006 will, according to documents obtained by The Tennessean. Kim Campbell declined comment on the filing Thursday.)
About six weeks before he died, Glen slipped into the seventh, and final, stage of the disease.
“The month before he passed was extremely difficult, because it was just so sad — he declined so radically. He couldn’t feed himself any longer. He forgot how to swallow and then he forgot how to breathe. Most people end up dying of some other complication, but he was so healthy, he went through to the final stages. We had the whole family in, the kids from other marriages, the grandchildren, and everybody was surrounding him in the last few days. The day before he passed away, two people from the symphony were there and we just heard this gorgeous music coming into his room.”
When the end finally came, there was relief.
“You say goodbye every day for so many years and it is so heartbreaking, so when it finally happens there’s a mixture of emotions. There’s a sense of relief for him, because I know he wouldn’t want to go on and be bedridden. I actually said, ‘Thank you God.’ Glen died peacefully without pain. I knew it was his time. I felt like it was a blessing. He had lived a beautiful life, he was content in his final years and we did everything we could to give him to give him the best quality of life.”
For Kim, healing has come slowly.
“It’s hard for me to listen to his music, to see him on TV, even to look at his pictures on my piano, his clothes in my closet. So many memories are still tough to deal with. But I’m trying. I’ve got to be thankful for these memories that I’ve had and cherish them instead of letting them hurt me and remind me of what I’ve lost.”
With more than 45 million albums sold and 10 Grammys to his name, the singer’s musical legacy is intact. But his efforts to shine a light on his disease also live on.
“The music legacy is very important and that stands alone. The Alzheimer’s is a different category. That’s Glen the human being and it’s so special and I think it’s made such a big impact on families that have Alzheimer’s.”
Kim’s own mission is to share the lessons she’s learned as a caregiver.
“You cannot do this alone. You need to let people know what you are going through. The stigma of long-term care runs so deep — the idea that you are throwing someone away instead of taking care of them yourself. Or that you are breaking your marriage vows. But I didn’t cease to be a caregiver when we joined the community, I just had a bigger team that was more professional. There is such a misunderstanding. We want caregivers to know what options are out there for help. I want everyone to know places like Abe’s Garden exist.”
Kim has made visits to Capitol Hill on behalf of caregivers and plans to continue advocating by launching a CareLiving foundation next year.
“I found a lot of healing in doing advocacy. It brings purpose and meaning out of the tragedy. And I feel like I’m honoring Glen by continuing what he started.”
For more from Kim Campbell and how she’s honoring late husband Glen’s legacy, pick up the Dec. 4 issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.