With an accent as thick as the wiry eyebrows sprouting from his forehead, Franklin welcomed me into his world. “Hi Darlin,” he offered up his hand and a sideways smile. “I’m a hillbilly from Alabama.” His handshake wasn’t firm — but it wasn’t weak. Instead it was genuine and kind — the gesture of a true southern gentleman.
When I started visiting the dementia care residency, I was hesitant. The only experience I had interacting with someone who lived with dementia wasn’t pleasant.
When my grandmother became incapacitated with dementia and moved to a facility across the state, my parents discouraged me from going with them to visit. They said she wouldn’t remember me. And, it would be very painful to see her in this condition. I decided to visit anyway.
My parents were right. Not only was I a complete stranger to my grandmother, but I could barely recognize this shell of a woman. Seemingly unaware of my presence, her hollow eyes remained fixed on the white plaster wall. The most interaction we had was when she began plucking tiny pieces of nothing off the tile floor and placing them in the palm of my hand. In my mind, my grandmother was gone. And, I never went back. The next time I saw her she lay still in her casket — a much more peaceful existence, I thought.
From then on, I assumed that people who were institutionalized with dementia were unreachable. I thought they existed in their own little world and were incapable of relating to others. So, I was surprised when Franklin and I connected so quickly and easily.
Franklin was eager to tell me about his property down south. It was an expansive parcel of land, fertile with trees and critters and a silver lake. Like many of the dementia care residents, Franklin was making plans to go home soon. And, when he did, I was invited to visit.
Franklin shared many stories with me. Some, like how he won twenty-nine million dollars in the lottery, were clearly fictitious. Others, like when he drove the tour bus for the infamous Jazz musician John Coltrane, were surprising but possible. I soon learned that whether or not the details were true, Franklin’s stories were important. When I read between the lines, I found his emotions to be genuine. These were his truths and I honored them.
Although very pleasant and social, as well as cognitively and physically able, Franklin didn’t receive visitors and rarely left the residency. From our conversations, I knew he was craving a connection with the outside world. So, I decided to investigate and figure out a way to make this happen.
I learned that Franklin’s sister who lived in Alabama was his power of attorney. My plan was to call her and ask permission for Franklin to accompany me to dinner. Even though I had good-intentions, I recognized that my efforts may rouse suspicion. After all, I was a complete stranger to this woman. Why should she entrust me with her brother?
“Hello. My name is Kerry Andersen. I’m looking for Lottie Ellis.” I had rehearsed this simple introduction several times before mustering the courage to dial.
The voice on the other end was careful, but kind. “This is Lottie.”
For some reason, I was surprised that Lottie answered the phone.
“Hi, Lottie. I’m a volunteer who visits with the residents at Rosewood, where your brother Franklin lives. I understand you are his power of attorney?” I inquired.
“That is correct,” Lottie paused, her response more of a question than a statement.
“I’m calling because I’ve been visiting with Franklin for several months and I’d very much like to take him to dinner.” I was about to ask her permission and invite her to check my references when she jumped in, unexpectedly.
“Oh — now wouldn’t that be wonderful? He would really enjoy that I’m sure. You know, I try to come and visit a couple times a year. But, I’ve been dealing with some health issues of my own, and I just can’t get up there. Plus — I don’t know if he told you — I am currently fostering two Labrador Retrievers.”
“No, Franklin didn’t tell me that you foster dogs. How wonderful!” I interjected.
Lottie continued, “Yes — a single, 72-year-old woman with a couple of unruly fur-balls. Imagine that! And what a handful they are. What did you say your name was? Kerry? Yes, Kerry, I think inviting Franklin to dinner is a fine idea.”
I was pleasantly surprised with Lottie’s response. Not only did she eagerly approve my request, she also seemed grateful to have someone to talk to regarding her brother. She proceeded to tell me how she came to accept the responsibility of being her brother’s power of attorney. And, perhaps without realizing it, she shared the heaviness of her heart.
“It’s not ideal — with my health and us living so far apart. It would be much better if one of his kids was involved. But the boys haven’t been to see him in years. And, of course, he hasn’t seen his daughter since she was about seven.”
This news was a surprise to me. Franklin spoke proudly of his daughter’s recent nuptials and how he was looking forward to meeting his first grandbaby. Furthermore, according to Franklin, his daughter was his only child.
“Unfortunately,” Lottie’s voice grew quiet, “my brother didn’t prioritize well when it came to his family.”
Not knowing how to respond, I simply replied, “I had no idea.”
“Yes. And now he’s alone. I’m the only family he has. And, I can’t even visit him. I know he’s made some poor choices. But, he’s still my brother and I love him. When we talk on the phone, he tells me he just wants to come home.” The sadness in her voice was palpable.
“Lottie, why is Franklin in Wisconsin? Couldn’t he be transferred to a facility near you?”
Lottie sighed softly. “Franklin was living in Wisconsin when I learned of his condition. By that time, he needed round-the-clock supervision. I tried to move him here. But, the state won’t pay for nursing home care until he’s been a resident for six months. And, neither of us have the resources to pay for six months of care. As much as I’d like to, I’m not able to care for him at home. So, he’s stuck in Wisconsin.”
The more I listened, the more I learned how difficult this situation was for Lottie. Her tone told me as much as her words. Although she was doing what she could to help Franklin, the guilt was as heavy as the despair. What could I possibly say to lessen the burden?
“Lottie, I can only imagine how hard this is for you. But, I’d like you to know something. I understand that Franklin has made some mistakes in his life that have pushed his family away. But, I never knew that person. I only know a kind, gentle man who I enjoy spending time with. And, I would like nothing more than to take him out for a hamburger this weekend.”
It wasn’t much. But it was enough. Lottie exhaled.
Sensing the shift in her, I continued. “I know the situation is not ideal and that it must be very hard when Franklin tells you he wants to come home. But, I also know that Rosewood is a good place with good people. Not only is Franklin well-cared-for at Rosewood, he also has friends. The staff and other residents simply adore him. Who knows? Maybe someday the circumstances will change and Franklin can move back home. But right now you can take comfort in knowing that thanks to you, your brother is safe and with people who care.”
I’m not sure where they came from, but the words were almost magic. Although I was sitting in my parked car, 800 miles away, I could practically see the tension lift, if only for a moment. A soft whimper of gratitude rose from Lottie’s throat. “Thank you. Thank you for telling me this. And thank you for visiting my brother.”
Since our initial conversation, Lottie and I have kept in touch. After each outing with Franklin, I call his sister to share the details of our adventures. Whether it is grappling with a Chicago style hot dog, driving along the shore of Lake Michigan, strolling through the harbor market, or Franklin mercilessly kicking my butt in a game of checkers, we always have a good time. And, Lottie has the peace of knowing that when she can’t be there, someone else is.
What Franklin taught me:
When I first met Franklin, I had been volunteering with hospice for several months. I had experienced what the volunteer trainer had said — my efforts would make a difference in my life and the lives of the people I visited with. When I spoke with Lottie that day, I gained an even higher perspective. I saw that my reach is much greater, extending to the loved ones of the individuals I visit. Today, I am motivated by the knowledge that the circle of impact around me has no boundaries.
Franklin also reinforced something my mother shared when she was dying. I had told my mom I was afraid of forgetting the things we did, the places we traveled to, the shows we saw, and the people we met. She was the one who remembered all of that stuff. How would I access it after she died? I feared that I would lose more of her as time went on and details fell away.
My mom didn’t hesitate before answering. She said, “Kerry, facts don’t matter. All that matters are the feelings. You may not remember the name of a city we visited in Spain. But, you will remember how we felt when we were together.”
Not only does this wisdom keep me connected to my mother after her death, it allows me to connect with my friends who are living with dementia. It doesn’t matter whether or not Franklin pitched for the Yankees in the World Series. In his mind, he did. In accepting this, I can focus on being present with him and, in this case, celebrate the joy of the moment.
Finally, Franklin taught me there is a unique gift that only a new friend can offer. Because Franklin and I met after he was already living with dementia and any mistakes that he made never affected me, I was able to enter the relationship without any expectations. I didn’t spend our time together grieving the person he once was (as I had done with my grandmother.) Nor did I carry any resentments (as often happens in long-term relationships.) I was simply able to be with him as he was in the moment. But, the most remarkable thing of all is that he reciprocated that gift a hundred times over. And, I couldn’t be more grateful.