Most mornings, Ben Batey takes a long walk by himself.
There are many things Ben can't do anymore since his Parkinson's disease has progressed. But his wife, Gayle Batey, said he continues to make the roughly two miles to the neighborhood club house and back home almost daily.
"I can't keep up with him, he walks that fast," she said.
The couple has also found a way to be involved in the world of Parkinson's research. Ben is part of a study at the University of Southern California and last fall, he and Gayle made a large donation to research that could lay the groundwork for new medications to treat degenerative neurological diseases.
Sitting in their Bakersfield home recently, Gayle did most of the talking for the fit couple, helping out Ben as he interjected occasionally in a soft voice.
"We have bad days, Ben does and I do. But I am constantly saying, 'Let's make today as good as we can make it.'"
BUILDING A LIFE IN BAKERSFIELD
Ben, 77, and Gayle, 78, attended the same Nashville high school but met again in graduate school at Vanderbilt University, where they were both studying to be teachers.
They moved west for better paying jobs in Shafter and later settled in Bakersfield. Ben taught high school biology for at least a decade but turned to real estate.
"We saved enough money to live for six months if he didn't sell anything," Gayle laughed, recalling Ben's decision to go into real estate full-time.
In time, Ben transitioned from selling homes to building them. Gayle later got her real estate license and joined Ben in their business, Batey Development Inc.
The couple raised three children and began winding down from a successful career building homes across Bakersfield just before the housing bubble burst.
Ben's symptoms starting appearing even before their retirement, around 2003, as the Bateys built their own house in Seven Oaks. The plan for the home was more complicated and Gayle said it was a strain on Ben, though he'd built many houses before.
"He seemed to have some anxiety when we started this," she said. "I didn't realize that it was beginning to challenge him to do those new things."
Several years later, Gayle and Ben's daughter, a doctor in Tennessee, also noticed that something was wrong and scheduled an appointment with another physician.
The reality of Ben's condition hit Gayle as she watched him struggle to complete a memory test.
"That's the first time I realized, 'Whoa, something has started to happen here,'" she said.
After Ben was diagnosed with Parkinson's about seven years ago, he became part of a USC study. He has tried different drugs, some that gave him emotional side effects, but now he takes two medications and myriad vitamins.
Ben's decline hasn't been steady, Gayle said, but instead marked by periods of little change and then drops. Last year between April and August, Ben's abilities fell considerably.
"Ben did not lose for a long time any of his scientific knowledge. He remembered things about chemistry and all that sort of things, but it was like what happened yesterday, he couldn't remember," Gayle said.
Ben doesn't have a driver's license anymore and can't read books or follow stories in television programs. Ben said he tries to stay away from the things he can't do anymore.
"It's very hard when you're that gifted to all of a sudden you can't do things," Gayle said.
One of the hardest adjustments for the couple to make was the loss of Ben's handyman skills. Their home was plagued by plumbing problems and microwave glitches last year.
Many of Ben and Gayle's friends are still active and like to travel, heading to exotic destinations like Italy or South Africa.
"We would like to do some things like that, but we're not going to get to do those things," Gayle said.
FINDING NEW WAYS
The Bateys' retirement may not be what they expected, but Gayle said they are finding new ways to accomplish things. Two or three times a week, a hired person takes Ben to run errands or go to lunch. Last winter, Ben and Gayle travelled to New York and Gayle hired her hairdresser and her husband to come along and help them.
"As long as it's safe, we are going to stay here (at home) and probably add more hours and days of help here at the house," Gayle said.
The Bateys have found compatriots in coping with the disease at the Parkinson's Support Group of Kern County. Ben enjoys getting out and seeing people and the group is accepting and welcoming, Gayle said.
Participants swap tips on dealing with the everyday challenge of having Parkinson's, such as how they get into the car or experience different medical procedures.
"There's quite a bit of what works and what doesn't work being passed back and forth at the meetings," Gayle said.
Barbie Ross, the group facilitator, said the attendees are inspiring because they are so positive in the face of what they are dealing with.
"I think that Gayle and Ben have added so much to our group," Ross said. "Gayle is very active in the community and she has a lot of knowledge and connections about how things are done."
At the group's February meeting, participants shared jokes and bounced around thoughts on deep brain stimulation surgery. Group members said it's an encouraging place to come and share what they are dealing with.
"I think we lift one another up," said Alice Ragusa, who attends meetings with her husband, Joe Ragusa, who has Parkinson's. "If you don't keep humor in it, you can go downhill real fast."
The group was also busy planning for an upcoming dinner. On March 5, the group will host Dr. Helena Chui, chair of the Department of Neurology at the Keck Medical Center of USC, and Ralf Langen, a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Keck School of Medicine and member of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute.
Langen said the dinner "seems like a nice forum to present the progress that (researchers) have made."
Gayle did not want the amount of her and Ben's donation to research published, but she said, "we just realized that to do a little bit would not have any impact."
Gayle said she and Ben were impressed by Langen and his initial presensation to them about the research.
"I think (Ben) thought that (Langen) was a solid guy who was going to do some serious work. That's when we decided we would support them," Gayle said.
Langen said getting funding to begin research is a challenge and the Bateys' contribution was "extremely helpful."
"Probably without that gift, we would not have been able to get that study off the ground," he said.
Langen said the research is focused on trying to prevent proteins clumping together to form structures that are toxic and kill part of the brain.
"What our work is aimed at is trying to prevent that change from something non-toxic to something toxic," he said.
Langen said he has preliminary data showing promise from researchers' work in test tubes, but there are still many steps to go before the research could lead to a drug, including testing in animals and people.
"It's a long check list," he said.
Nonetheless, Gayle said, the work is exciting and hopeful. She said she hopes the people who attend the dinner are also encouraged by the work taking place.
"The whole point is research is happening, we're getting some answers," she said.