Much is written about the social isolation faced by people with dementia and their caregivers. Isolation has had a significant impact on Kate. Until her diagnosis, she was a very active volunteer librarian at our church. She took this position after working as a librarian/media specialist with the Knoxville schools. She derived much satisfaction working at the church. Even though she was a volunteer, she spent a lot of time there and developed a good relationship with the staff. She was included in their staff meetings and social activities. She often went to lunch with several of the staff on a regular basis.
In addition to the staff, she also got to know a lot of the church members and their children. Sunday school teachers often came to her for resources for their classes. If she didn’t have anything in the church library, she would find the appropriate material elsewhere and get it to the teacher. She developed a strong collection of books and media for children. As our church has a lot of young married couples, we added lots of children. Parents brought their children to the library. Kate loves children and cultivated relationships with them. She offered story time for children in Sunday school and in our weekly day school. Kate’s volunteer work at church became a central focus of her life. She only gave it up when she recognized the symptoms of Alzheimer’s made it difficult to manage her responsibilities the way she wanted.
After her resignation, I invited her to join the Sunday school class that I was teaching. She tried it periodically but never fully engaged. We had a lot of class discussion. I think she found it too difficult to follow.
Beside the church, she had two other important social connections. One of those was her very close friend, Ellen Seacrest. Gordon and Ellen had been good friends since the early 1970s. Our children grew up together, and we spent a lot of time together socially. They were the couple with whom we celebrated New Year’s Eve many years. After leaving her volunteer position at church, the relationship between Kate and Ellen grew stronger. Then after Gordon died in 2013, they became even closer friends. Except for Kate’s brother and his wife, Ellen is still the only person she has told about her Alzheimer’s. Two and a half years ago, Ellen had a stroke while visiting her daughter in Nashville. She was in the hospital followed by rehab. Several months passed before she moved into assisted living in Nashville. Although we visit her almost monthly, it is not the same as having her in town. In addition, Ellen’s speech was affected by the stroke, and it is very difficult to understand what she is saying.
I should add that Kate has had three other close relationships since we have lived in Knoxville. One of those died quite a few years ago. Another, Ann Davis, moved out of state for a number of years. She and her husband now live in Nashville. We often stop to see them when we are there to visit Ellen. The third close friend moved to Arkansas following her marriage after the death of her previous husband with whom we were also close friends.
There is one other social connection that was important to Kate but is now broken. That’s PEO. She had been involved with them for more years than I remember, At one time she was their chapter’s President. She frequently hosted meetings in our home and was occasionally in charge of the program. She was never close friends with any individual members, but she enjoyed and respected the members and valued PEO’s mission. She was especially supportive of PEO’s grants and scholarship program for women to attend college. Over time Kate’s memory of the members began to fade. That was especially true since they only meet once a month. The result was that she no longer felt comfortable going to meetings. For a while, I encouraged her to go, and she agreed to do so. Eventually, I sensed that when she was with other members, the conversation didn’t involve her as much. She didn’t know who was talking or grasp what they were saying. She simply couldn’t keep up. One time when I reminded her of her next meeting, she told me she had resigned and wasn’t going anymore. I never pushed her after that. I spoke with one of the past president’s who had been sending me all communications since Kate did not read her email. I informed her that I thought it best if Kate resigned. She suggested that she simply go on inactive status. I agreed to that. We still pay her annual dues as well as making a contribution to their annual fund drive, but Kate is no longer involved.
This is a sad story. Kate, who had had several very strong social connections, now found herself without a close friend in Knoxville. I know that she is not the only person with Alzheimer’s who has faced this problem. It can be hard to avoid and requires some initiative and creativity. The good news is I have found ways to address her isolation. I’ll say more about that later.