Elderly Couple: A Life Lived Together, And A Love That Can’t Be Broken

By Ashley White
Photography by Jacinda Davis 

Burt and Donna Sundberg
Married 61 years, with four children: Craig, Greta, Karen and Karol; 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren

Every night, Burt and Donna Sundberg have dinner together, share some alone time and get ready for bed, just like they have every night for 61 years. Except now, Donna lives in the memory wing at Bethesda in Willmar, and after Burt kisses her goodnight, he quietly leaves to go back to the home they once shared together.

Last year, Donna was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Though she can still remember most of her family and close friends, it sometimes takes her a moment to recall how she knows them. But there’s one person she almost always recognizes right away, and that’s her husband.

“She doesn’t always remember my name, but she knows me and she remembers me,” Burt says. “It makes her happy to see me.”

For the past year, Burt has spent two and a half hours every morning and three hours every evening at Bethesda, visiting with his wife. Sometimes he will try to help her remember their past, but for the most part, they now spend their time talking about how much they love each other.

“We talk about our feelings toward each other. We say ‘I love you’ a lot,” Burt says. “It’s actually strengthened us in that way. Our relationship seems to be warmer.”

Burt and Donna have had quite the life together. They met in the 1940s in their hometown of Isanti. After dating for several years, they married a month after Burt proposed — on Aug. 12, 1952. They’ve had four children together and now have 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, with one more on the way in the near future.

“Our family has grown tremendously,” Burt says. “Having children was really the fruit of our marriage. It was great to see them choose their life path.”

After their children grew up and left home, the couple took regular vacations together for many years, often traveling across the country to the West Coast, where Burt grew up, and Georgia, where one of their daughters now lives.

“We’ve always loved to travel and see the beauty of nature,” Burt says. “We’d rent a house off the coast of Georgia and invite the whole family to visit. When we traveled out west, we’d always stop through Yellowstone and Glacier National Park.”

The Sundbergs also loved volunteering together and giving back to others. For nearly 12 summers, Burt and Donna donated a week every spring to help prepare a church camp north of Brainerd for summer campers. They also served on committees together at their church, First Baptist in Willmar.

For so many years, Burt and Donna did everything together. Life is much different now, and sometimes that reality can be hard to accept, Burt admits.

“It breaks my heart whenever I have to leave her, but she understands,” Burt says. “I wish she had never gotten Alzheimer’s, I do. But I’m not going to blame anyone.”

After years of living for the future, they now choose to live each day for the present moment. It’s the little things that mean the most to them: the daily walks down the hall, the dinners together in the dining room or holding hands under the covers as Donna falls asleep in the evening.

“The future is the unknown factor, so we’re just going to live one day at a time,” Burt says. “I keep reminding her that we’ve been married 61 years, and then I tell her we have 20 more to go. That always makes her laugh. She knows enough to know that we won’t have that.”

Burt and Donna may not have 20 more years together, but over the last 61 years, they’ve built a life and a love that not everyone is lucky enough to have — a love that even one of the cruelest illnesses can’t break.

“I almost look at it as a blessing,” Burt says. “It has brought us an even closer bond. Alzheimer’s has not taken away our love for each other. It can’t.”

His advice for younger couples
“Plan together and do things together whenever possible.”

What he loves most about her
“Her love and compassion for others. She has always seen something we could do to help or encourage someone else. All of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – every one of them has been touched by her love.”

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