Fairfield Bay residents share memories of loved ones, prepare to participate in annual Alzheimer’s walk

Carol Rolf/Contributing Writer Originally Published September 12, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 11, 2013 at 10:24 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Preparing for the Alzheimer’s Walk on Saturday in Fairfield Bay are, from the left, Doris Sexson, Ellen and George Kelly, and Bill Paar.

FAIRFIELD BAY — Doris’ sister would call Doris in the middle of the night and accuse her of stealing things. Ellen’s mother often called her daughter “Mother.” Bill’s wife doesn’t talk at all.

All three of these scenarios have one thing in common — signs of dementia and, more specifically, Alzheimer’s disease.

Ellen Kelly, Doris Sexson and Bill Paar have all experienced the ravages of the disease.

Ellen’s mother, Evelyn, died in 2007 just two months shy of her 97th birthday; Doris’ sister, Violet, died in 2010 at the age of 82; Bill’s wife, Marilyn, 84, has had Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years. These three residents of the small retirement community of Fairfield Bay in Van Buren County are able to share their stories, laughter and tears with others in similar circumstances through the help of Alzheimer’s Arkansas.

The three of them will show their continued support of the state organization by participating Saturday in the Greers Ferry Lake Area Alzheimer’s Arkansas Day.

Ellen’s husband, George Kelly, is the volunteer chairman of the Fairfield Bay walk, which is one of seven such fundraisers held each fall throughout the state.

Saturday’s festivities will start at 7:30 a.m. with a pancake breakfast at the Fairfield Bay Lions Club, 365 Dave Creek Parkway. George said a portion of the breakfast’s proceeds will benefit the walk.

Registration and sign-in will begin at 8:30 a.m. in Fairfield Bay’s Woodland Mead Park, 522 Dave Creek Parkway. Participants who donate at least $25 to the walk will receive a commemorative T-shirt while supplies last.

Walkers will gather at 9:30 at the Lions’ amphitheater in the park. Meredith Mitchell Leal, THV Channel 11 reporter and weather forecaster, will be the honorary walk chairwoman and will lead the walk, beginning at 10. Following the walk, attendees may return to the Lions amphitheater, where awards and prizes will be given from 11 a.m. to noon.

The Kellys became involved in the Alzheimer’s walk not long after they moved to Fairfield Bay from Wichita, Kan., in 2005.

George walked in 2006, became a team captain in 2007 and took over as walk chairman the next year.

Ellen’s father died in 1994, and her mother moved in with Ellen in Wichita. Five years later, when Ellen, 69, and George, 71, married [both were widowed], Ellen said her mother did not want to live with them.

“She said, ‘I’m not going to live with honeymooners. They would keep me up doing this and that,’” Ellen said with a laugh.

So Evelyn moved into an assisted-living community near her daughter and son-in-law in Wichita and remained there until 2001, when her increasing dementia and recovery from a surgery resulted in her going into a nursing home. Evelyn never regained her strength and died in a nursing home.

George said he and Ellen initially planned to move Evelyn to Fairfield Bay after they moved there, but the doctor advised against it. After the move to Arkansas, the Kellys would go back to visit Evelyn in Wichita every four to six weeks.

“She was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” Ellen said. “The doctors diagnosed her with another form of dementia, Sundowner’s syndrome.”

“We were not involved in any kind of support group when we put mother in the nursing home in Wichita,” Ellen said. “We didn’t get involved until we moved to Fairfield Bay.

“When we left Wichita, we left with the idea of becoming involved in this community. Alzheimer’s Arkansas was something we really thought we should support because of the dementia mother had. There was a need here. It was something we could do to help out. It really did appeal to us.”

George said he became aware of Evelyn’s dementia not long after he met Ellen in 1998.

“She’d forget things,” he said. “She would lose things. She even put her keys in the refrigerator. And she would get lost driving places.

“We didn’t have any support group at first. We learned on the fly. Some of the things she did were so comical that you had to laugh, or you would cry.”

Ellen said she began to suspect something was wrong with her mother as early as 1988.

“She was a bookkeeper, and she became unable to do her job,” Ellen said. “Then, near the end, she didn’t know me at all. She referred to me as her mother. But she was never mean, never violent. The only complaint she had was about the lady next to her because [the woman] couldn’t sing.”

Doris Sexon, 78, said her sister, Violet, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2001 or 2002 in Neosho, Mo.

“We were [in Fairfield Bay],” Doris said, adding that she and her husband moved from Blytheville to Fairfield Bay more than 20 years ago.

Doris said she first became aware of her sister’s dementia when she could no longer take care of her checkbook or cook.

“I teased her about not being able to cook, not knowing that her mind was beginning to slip,” Doris said. “She blamed her confusion on the walnut trees.

“I went to the doctor with her, her husband and her oldest daughter. Her husband was dragging his feet.

“They gave her a test. I told her if she would have an MRI and a brain scan, I would do the same.”

Violet’s tests showed problems; Doris’ tests showed none.

“But because of Violet’s dementia and the fact that we had another sister and a brother who had been diagnosed with dementia, the doctor put me on a preventative medicine,” Doris said. “He said, ‘It’s hereditary, and you will get it eventually.’

“So I take [medicine] twice a day, and it seems to be working. I’ve been a hairdresser for 57 years, and I’m still working. I’ve been an artist for 35 years, and I’m still working. I want to keep busy for as long as I can.”

Doris said her sister had Alzheimer’s for about 15 years.

“She went into the hospital with pneumonia, had a brain aneurysm and died in 2010.

“She always knew me,” Doris said. “But during the last few years, she would get angry with me. She accused me of stealing her things.

“I had borrowed a photo of our dad when he was in the Marines, and she knew that I had borrowed it, but I had misplaced it. She called me at 2 a.m. one morning and demanded that I bring Dad’s picture back. So for the last three years of her life, I didn’t see her because she was so angry with me.”

Bill and Marilyn moved to Fairfield Bay from Dubuque, Iowa, in 1994.

Bill, 86, said Marilyn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2004.

“I took her to the doctor to be tested, and he said, ‘You’d better see a neurologist.’

“I took her to one in Heber Springs, and she came out, noncommittal,” Bill said. “I had not gone into the exam with her. I asked to see the doctor, and he spent a few minutes with me. He asked me an odd question: ‘Do you pray?’ he asked. “I answered, ‘Yes, I pray.’ And he said, ‘You’re going to have to pray an awful lot.’”

Bill said he first noticed something was not quite right with his wife when she refused to drive.

“That’s the opposite of a lot of Alzheimer’s patients,” he said. “A lot of them live to drive, but not Marilyn.

“Then, when I would leave her to go on a business trip and suggest she do something while I was gone, when I would return, I would find that she had done just the opposite of what I had asked her to do.

“It’s been 10 years, now. I still care for her at home. I have a caregiver that comes in twice a week. But I’m afraid within the next six months, I will have to put her in a nursing home. It’s just getting harder and harder.

“She won’t eat. When I sit a plate of food in front of her, she just picks at it, and most of it ends up in the floor. She doesn’t walk now; she just shuffles. And she does not talk. She does not communicate. I think she knows me, but she doesn’t call anyone by name.

“I’d like to bring her out to the wellness center, but she won’t go. She doesn’t recognize the car. She has lost her ability to think.”

For more information on the walk or to volunteer to help with the event, call George Kelly at (501) 884-6476.

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