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Circle of Love
by Hugh Frank Smith




People often ask me: "How were you able to cope with your wife Rachael's long illness with Alzheimer's?"

I hope my answer will help other caregivers.

It was, of course, traumatic and emotionally draining to watch my wife of 53 years fade away mentally, then physically, before she died in 1997. Still, there were many bright moments filled with laughter and fond reminiscences of our life together. My wife's infectious humor, for which she had always been noted, remained with her almost to the end, and did much to ease the burden of her illness.

As her condition worsened, we tried to focus on her remaining mental and physical abilities and adjust to her new limitations.

For example, my daughters, Sunde and Melanie, and I found that it was very important to continue talking with her as if she understood everything we said. We might simplify our sentences, but we never left her out of the conversation, and we always kept eye contact. She was always placed in the middle of whatever activity was going on at the house.

Most days I built a fire for her, as I had always done. Visitors, including many of her former riding students, would always draw up their chairs right next to her for another retelling of stories they knew so well. Conversations frequently focused on Rachael's childhood on her family's bustling Iowa farm, Sunny Crest, not only because those tales of another era were entertaining, but also because Rachael could recall so many details from that period of her life. Alzheimer's patients typically lose their short-term memory first, but they can often vividly recount events of the distant past. Encouraging them to continue talking about bygone years helps keep them mentally alert and adds meaning to their final days.

At one point, we gathered Rachael's sister Ruth and my sister Nan, then in their late 80s, and taped a long conversation with the three of them about their years on farms in the early 1900s. You could just see Rachael's speech become more animated as she began to talk about all the animals and people that had populated that period in her life. This was before cars, airplanes, radios, even electricity in many areas. It is a treasured oral family history, especially since times changed so radically during their lifetimes.

I often regret now that I did not have similar conversations with my father, who lived into his mid-90s, and could have told me so much about a way of life in this country that has vanished.

We found it especially important for Rachael to continue her usual routine as much as possible for as long as possible. Until the last two years of her 14-year illness she dressed early every morning for her round of barnyard chores. She often selected rather quirky attire, which amused all of us, and would usually tuck feathers into her belt or cap. She scoured the farm daily for feathers our flock of geese might have shed, and arranged them in vases around the house. She had her special goose, Goosey Goosey Gander, that she had raised by hand and who would come running at the sound of her voice.

Her colony of cats included her special pet, Hans, who spent more time on her lap than outdoors. She also fed her favorite palomino horse, Apollo, along with our border collies, Mark and Joyce, and her Plymouth Rock laying hens. She would proudly exclaim: "Look how many eggs I got today!"

It was comforting to see her among her animals, smiling and laughing as she always had. Even when she was confined to a wheelchair, we would take her to the barn and the pasture to visit with her animals. I still enjoy the henhouse Rachael began when we moved to Germantown 50 years ago, and I gather fresh eggs every day, often with my four grandchildren, just as Rachael did.

Even as her memory faded, Rachael never seemed depressed, and often she would laugh at herself when she said something ridiculous or outrageous. Rather than correct her mistakes, many of them humorous, we just went along with them. I even kept a log. For example, one evening she looked at me and asked: "How did I happen to marry you? I didn't mean to." We both laughed. Another night, after arriving home from a party, she looked at our house and asked: "Didn't we once live here?" I laughed and she quickly joined me.

I really think she often made comments like that just to elicit a chuckle. When she couldn't get to sleep one night, I suggested: "Why don't you count sheep?" Her reply: "We only have three." That was true; we had three sheep.

Visitors sometimes were subjected to careful scrutiny from Rachael. She looked at one lady and then frankly asked: "Are those your real teeth?"

Rachael never stopped smiling and laughing, and the rest of us continued searching for those pieces of her memory that remained to keep her from slipping away too quickly. As she began to find it difficult to complete sentences, we would do it for her. When she finally couldn't talk at all, we kept right on chatting with her.

Most important, she remained at the center of our farm and our family throughout it all. We found ways to treasure as much of the end of life as possible. As it turned out, Rachael's sunny disposition throughout her life was her final gift to us. It made Alzheimer's "long goodbye" more bearable for my daughters and myself.


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[This story was first published in The Memphis Commercial Appeal on March 26, 2004, and is reprinted with permission.]


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Veteran journalist Hugh Frank Smith is a former columnist and copy editor for the old Memphis Press-Scimitar. He lives on a farm in Germantown, Tennessee, and may be reached at Bugesmith’s email.

Want to read more of Smith’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Martins
If you hang a gourd, they’ll come
Memphis storm
Growing up apart with Jimmy Carter

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