Dan and Jennifer Digmann met and fell in love at a multiple sclerosis (MS) event in 2002 and often say the disease brought them together. More than 15 years later, they’re happily married, fully devoted, and helping one another thrive “despite MS, to spite MS.”
“When people look at Jennifer and me, they immediately think I am the caregiver in our relationship. This is only part true. For as much as I do for her, she does even more to take care of me,” Dan says.
Jennifer expresses the same for her husband: “I don’t think people, especially Dan, realize how much he does for me. He knows that I can do what I can, but I often comment that it’s like he puts in a full workday before he leaves for the office at 8 a.m.”
In reality, Dan and Jennifer are both partners and caregivers to one another. We spent a day with them and discovered what makes their unique partnership work.
Things Jennifer does for Dan
Takes care of grocery shopping
Thanks to Jennifer’s shopping skills and her love for me, I never have to worry about going grocery shopping. Not that I won’t do it, but she reassured me when we got married in 2005 that shopping was her thing. And Jennifer knows that taking the time to make a list and go through coupons at home with her caregiver, Crystal, will help conserve her energy as she fills the shopping cart.
Provides comfort through hand massage
Numbness in my feet and hands is among the most noticeable MS symptom that I live with. I’m a professional writer, so I spend a lot of my day typing. Each stroke of the keyboard further irritates numbness, and I don’t have a lot of feeling left in my hands by the end of the day. Bless Jennifer for her willingness to rub sensation back into my hands each night after I get home. Bonus: Massaging my hands helps keep her MS-affected hands functioning, too!
Sets the DVR
I officially am that “old guy” who doesn’t know how to set our video recorder. And Jennifer is always like, Dan, I got this. So, whether it’s programming the DVR to record our TV standards like “ABC World Nightly News,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Life in Pieces,” “Speechless,” “Shameless,” “This Is Us” and “House Hunters International,” or special programs — including “ESPN 30 for 30” and anything with Tom Brady or Bruce Springsteen — I always can count on her to take care of it.
Keeps me fit and exercising
After Jennifer attended the first MOVE! for Health@CMU exercise class at Central Michigan University (CMU), she came home and said, “Dan, you HAVE to go! It is so awesome!” She wasn’t kidding. It’s a special class for people living with Parkinson’s and MS hosted by CMU’s physical therapy doctoral students. They adapt each exercise to individual skill levels. And they always send us home with weekly workout sheets with activities such as walking, stretching, and bridging. Jennifer makes sure I stay on track between classes.
Does the laundry
Much like the grocery shopping, I don’t have to worry about doing laundry. That’s right. Jennifer takes care of it with her caregivers, Crystal and Marcus. This helps me tremendously, because after working all day, I don’t usually have the energy to do laundry or cleaning on top of other things I do to help Jennifer.
Bon appétit! Jennifer always makes sure food is ready to eat when I break for lunch, whether it’s her and her caregiver Crystal whipping up freshly made sandwiches or warming up leftovers from our favorite pizzeria, The Cabin. She incorporates foods that are easier for her to eat given her MS-weakened hands and arms. This includes more chicken dishes, larger vegetables, quesadillas, and more self-contained foods that don't require using a spoon.
Shops for our daily needs
Walking around department stores zaps my energy, and I never did like it even before I was diagnosed with MS. Similar to many other activities of daily living, I know Jennifer has us covered. All it takes is for us to turn on her computer and BOOM! She goes shopping online and, in a matter of minutes, new towels for the bathroom, sheets for our guest bed, a meat thermometer for grilling, and a birthday present for our niece in Iowa are purchased and ready for shipping. And I spent none of my energy.
Acts as the sous-chef
I do enjoy cooking. More to the point: I like to bake cookies! Even better than that? I like to bake peanut butter chocolate chip cookies with Jennifer. She’s my sous-chef of sorts who makes baking easier by reading me the recipe from the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” that we got for our wedding. She also makes sure I mix everything in the proper order. I learned from her that it does make a difference.
Listens to my needs
I have a lot of thoughts, ideas, and questions about work, MS, and how to get through life. Jennifer helps me make sense of everything by listening. Because she knows who I am and how my mind works, she knows the difference between when she needs to offer me answers, just be silent and smile, or remind me of how much she loves me.
Maintains the van
Our handicapped-accessible van is the key to our independence. While I take care of its insurance, Jennifer is the one who ensures it’s fully operational — whether it’s regularly topping off the gas tank, having its oil changed, or getting the battery replaced.
Fills out family cards and gifts
Jennifer doesn’t stop with just buying greeting cards for our family and friends at the store. She takes the time to fill them out, often signing my name, and sends them in the mail. She completes the process by telling and reminding me which family member I need to call and congratulate or wish a happy birthday to. Like everything else in my life, I couldn’t do it without her.
Makes me laugh
Whoever said laughter is the best medicine wasn’t lying. And nobody makes me laugh as much or as intensely as Jennifer. Sure, it can be through things like her unexpected comments, singing random songs, breaking into dance, or calling back old inside jokes. But nothing makes me laugh harder than when she cracks herself up and can’t catch her breath because she’s laughing so uncontrollably.
Things Dan does for Jennifer
Helps me use the bathroom
I’ve needed Dan’s help to transfer in the bathroom since before we were married. Because I can no longer stand on my own, he gets under my arms and lifts me until my legs engage and I can support myself. Once I’m steady on my feet, he pulls down my pants, helps me pivot, and sits me on the toilet. He then does everything in reverse to get me back into my chair. Without question, he makes these valuable transfers for me every time I have to use the bathroom. Every. Single. Time.
Cuts up food for easier eating
I’m blessed to have Dan’s support in so many activities throughout the day. This includes him helping me cut up my food to make it easier for me to eat. Obviously, I’d love to be able to do this for myself, but this is my MS reality. It’s also the reality for Dan and my other caregivers. But we work together and accept it so we don’t miss the opportunities to go out to dinner with our friends.
Styles my hair
Dan went to college to be a writer, but with the way he styles my hair, you’d think he has a degree in cosmetology. My MS-weakened arms make it hard to brush and manage the back of my hair. But Dan is always willing to help me tame my locks. He even asked his co-workers for tips on how they got their hair so straight! We have some of our best conversations while he’s helping me primp. I love these moments and appreciate his artistic flair.
Helps me get ready to go out
I’ve learned it isn’t easy to get dressed when you can’t stand on your own. It’s twice as difficult when you feel like your hands and arms don’t work. This is why Dan helps me get dressed every morning, and after 12 years of marriage, we’ve developed quite a routine. But each year, we remember a downside to living in Michigan: Putting on hats, gloves, and winter coats. Someday we’ll live in a warmer climate, right Dan?
Stretches out my legs and arms
After living with MS for over 20 years, I know that stretching is one of the best ways to overcome spasticity related to the disease. Dan has also seen the benefits of stretching throughout his 18 years with MS, and this is why he helps me regularly stretch my legs and arms. Even taking the time to lift my hands over my head will benefit my abilities to perform simple tasks like eating, holding the phone, and driving my chair.
Assists with van and seat belts
I always ride shotgun in our van. Being Dan’s co-pilot on all of our road trips, I’m responsible for navigating our routes (thanks, Google Maps) and making sure we arrive on time. But before any trip begins, Dan’s the one who makes sure the ramp drops, my chair is locked into position, and I’m safely buckled in and ready for takeoff. Let the adventures begin!
Getting me into bed is similar to my transfers in the bathroom. Dan helps me every night and morning, as well as with occasional afternoon naps. I may not always sleep in the afternoon, but this helps get me out of my chair and avoid potential pressure sores. Plus, what person dealing with MS fatigue doesn’t benefit from more rest?
Listens to what I’m saying
My mom once said that Dan would be a good pastor because he’s so easy to talk with. He really listens. He’s always in tune with what I’m saying because he’s my spouse and my primary caregiver. But the best times are when we’re pillow talking about things in our life that have absolutely nothing to do with MS. Just Dan and me.
Makes me laugh
It’s not hard to do because Dan makes me so happy. I often reflect on the fact that it took this stupid disease for us to find each other. But once we did, I stopped giving MS more credit than it deserves. After all, I’m with the man of my dreams, who has the power to make me laugh just by being his cute self. His dance moves, virtual belly putter, and Jack Nicholson impersonations get me every time.
Dan and Jennifer Digmann are active in the MS community as public speakers, writers, and advocates. They contribute regularly to their award-winning blog, and are authors of “Despite MS, to Spite MS,” a collection of personal stories about their life together with multiple sclerosis. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.