Couple with FA Are Each Other's Caregivers

Bill Beall and Gail Ableman, who each have Friedreich's ataxia, live independently thanks to 'the kind of love that can overcome challenges'

Bill Beall and Gail Ableman with Ableman's service dog Chandler.
Article Highlights:
  • Two individuals with Friedreich's ataxia who met through Quest magazine now live together independently, overcoming a double set of challenges as a team.
  • Brought together by their love of exercise, both agree that daily exercise helps them remain independent.
by Kathy Wechsler on October 1, 2011 - 2:39pm

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 4

Sharing a life together in Spokane, Wash., Bill Beall Jr. and Gail Ableman — who each use power wheelchairs due to Friedreich’s ataxia (FA) — spend much of their time working out to maintain their independence.

MDA’s Quest magazine and a love of exercise brought them together — and their love of each other makes possible their continued independence.

In the beginning

When Ableman, 53, of Spokane, Wash., read Easy Ways to Wheel in MDA’s Quest magazine (an article about power assist devices for manual wheelchairs; Quest July/August 2007), she noticed a picture of Beall, 54, working out on the same weight machine she’d recently purchased.

Since Beall also had FA and was listed in Quest’s Pen Pals section, Ableman (who coincidentally had just been featured in the article Exercise Your Options in the previous issue of Quest) sent Beall an email asking his opinion of the weight machine and whether he noticed a difference after using it.

From that small beginning came a few months of emails and phone conversations, in which the two gradually grew closer. But Beall, who lived in Marietta, Ga., and Ableman each had been previously married and weren’t looking for someone with whom to spend the next phase of their lives.

After several months, Beall flew to Spokane for a 10-day visit with Ableman. In a few months, he returned to Spokane, this time for a month.

The couple gradually realized they couldn’t live without each other.

In 2008, Beall moved across the country to Spokane, leaving behind his adult children, grandchildren, friends and the warm Georgia winters. In Spokane, he faced winters where 6 feet of snow isn’t uncommon.

“I really didn’t even think about the weather before I moved to Spokane,” says Beall. “I just wanted to get to Gail. I didn’t care where it was.”

Double the challenges

Before Beall moved to Spokane, the couple tried to think of everything that would make it difficult to live together on their own, so that they could work it out ahead of time.

Ableman says that — although they both already were fending for themselves — she wasn’t sure she could help Beall the way he needed to be helped. She also felt nervous leaving Beall at home while she worked.

“The truth was, everything would be an obstacle for us,” Ableman says. “We even decided at one point that this was crazy and there was no way that we could ever live alone.”

But they wanted to be together.

Never say never

Bill Beall and Gail Ableman working out
Beall and Ableman were featured in separate articles on exercise before they met.

These days, Beall and Ableman overcome their obstacles as a team. Although they decided not to legally marry to protect Beall’s government benefits, they wear wedding rings as a sign of their commitment to each other.

“Sometimes it seems almost impossible,” Ableman says. But if two people have “the kind of love that can overcome challenges,” they can make it work, she says.

The couple relies on their strengths and assists each other with their limitations. They both do what chores they can. Beall’s paid caregivers come in the morning and at night to help him get ready and in and out of bed, prepare his meals and help with housework.

“There are very few things that we can’t accomplish. We always find a way,” says Ableman. “Sometimes, working together as a team, a task will take us 25 minutes, but the same task would take a ‘normal’ person four minutes. So, sometimes we wait for the caregiver to get here.”

Humor helps. “Bill and I live in a world where it’s not too uncommon for one of us to ‘have an accident,’ and we can laugh at it together,” says Ableman.

Ableman, whose hands are steadier than Beall’s, does things that require fine motor skills like preaparing some meals, placing medication in Beall’s mouth, zipping their jackets after Beall puts them on and writing notes for the couple. Beall has long arms and does the reaching and picking up of dropped items — unless Ableman’s golden retriever/Great Dane service dog, Chandler, gets there first.

Although Chandler, 6, is definitely Ableman’s service dog and was trained to meet her individualized needs, he also assists Beall.

“When I can’t find Bill while we’re shopping, I say, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ Chandler goes wild and drags me all over until we find Bill,” Ableman says.

Staying strong

Daily exercise enables Beall and Ableman to help each other remain independent. The couple follows a weight-training routine that helps maintain their upper-body strength.

After Beall is in bed and the caregiver has left for the evening, Ableman transfers to bed using a transfer pole. She stands, pivots and falls back on the bed, then Beall pulls her into a sleeping position.

“Often, if we fall or just need to pull our own body weight, we are able to because of this strength,” Ableman says. “Between the two of us, we have ‘lifted’ each other, whether it’s off the floor, or back onto our wheelchair seats.”

Sexual intimacy also is very much a part of their relationship.

Before Beall moved to Spokane, the couple was nervous about the physical part of their relationship because movement was difficult for each of them and neither had ever been intimate with a partner with a disability. They talked about it frankly so there’d be no surprises in the bedroom.

In addition to good communication, there are times when Beall and Ableman have to flex their creativity and come up with a Plan B. “Sometimes we roll up to each other, close the curtains, and become quite passionate right in our wheelchairs,” says Ableman.

Often, humor helps ease a difficult situation.

One night Ableman somehow slid off the bed and onto the floor. After trying to get her up by themselves, the couple was forced to call Ableman’s son, Chase, for assistance.

Ableman recalls, “He came in the door, looked at the situation and said, ‘I don’t want to know what happened or why. I don’t even want you to talk. I’m going to pick you up, put you in bed and leave.’”

They say “love conquers all” — and together, Beall and Ableman have managed to turn this popular saying into a way of life.

Freelance writer Kathy Wechsler also has FA and is based in Tucson, Ariz.

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