I heard the music playing one day from a grand piano at Maple Crest Senior Living in Bluffton. The melody was so beautiful, I had to stop and listen.
Seated at the piano was Joanne Niswander, playing Broadway melodies. Her husband Dean was seated nearby, enjoying the music. It was a pleasure he could still enjoy through the fog of his Alzheimer’s disease.
“The music was one thing that held us together,” Joanne said of the couple’s eight-year journey through the memory-robbing illness. She has chronicled the time in her new book, “An Alzheimer’s Primer,” available at locations around Bluffton and at www.amazon.com.
“I wrote this book probably because I found writing does something for me. For my own information I wanted to look back for traces of Alzheimer’s that existed before we ever realized it. The book started as notes for my family and turned into more of a book that tells people, ‘OK, so you have Alzheimer’s. That’s dreadful, and it is. But life goes on,’” she said.
And that life begins and ends with love.
Indeed, the vows she took at their wedding in 1950 had included sickness and health, and here it was. Prior to health issues, the couple had made a good life for themselves, had six children, traveled the world, and settled in Bluffton. By 2002, all of those building blocks were the foundation holding Joanne up as she cared for Dean.
“We found out that we had done so many things that made this journey good,” she said.
A fan of journaling, Joanne took advantage one winter day to begin reading aloud her journals to Dean and the two would reminisce. This continued through many journals.
“That was such a neat thing, sitting there talking about these good memories. We could talk them over and laugh, and we re-lived them that way,” Joanne said.
Along with relying on family, Joanne also leaned on her friends at Maple Crest during those years. “I would wheel Dean up and down the halls and he liked that. Really, I suppose I did it for me as much as for us. He seemed to enjoy it, and I definitely enjoyed it,” she said.
But as the disease progressed, Joanne said it became more and more difficult to care for the love of her life. She was helped by the Alzheimer’s Association, and in 2008 moved Dean into a skilled nursing facility. It was at this point that Joanne realized she had become what she describes as a “half-widow,” her life partner gone, yet still there.
“I still remember where I was, walking down the street just outside the pharmacy, when that realization hit me,” she said. “Even today when I pass that place, I remember that feeling,” she added.
She visited Dean daily, often feeding him dinner or wheeling him on a walk outdoors. By this time, some of his talk was incoherent. “I think he always knew who I was, but I’m not sure. He couldn’t express himself, but he would have times of lucidity and I have to think that somewhere in his soul, he knew I was there,” she said.
That perfect love kept them both strong.
Dean died on Jan. 5, 2010. Joanne put a Marriage Benediction she had written in 1974 on the front page of his memorial booklet. Somehow it seemed fitting, and ended with the words, “God’s gift: Life magnified in love.”
Such love. Everyone should experience it once in their lives. And at this season of the year, that love is the overriding theme that can be seen in a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
Perfect love. A true gift.