Conversations by the Mailbox
In 2004, my husband and I moved with our two boys to a new home in central Florida. Our neighbors to our left were an older couple, Ed and Judy.
Over the years, Judy and I had neighborly conversations chatting about varied topics including our families, our husbands, the weather, good deals at the supermarket, upcoming holidays, and how Saint Augustine grass is tough to maintain. All of these conversations, interestingly enough, have taken place in front of our shiny black mailboxes between our two homes. The days varied, the times varied, and the length of our conversations have varied, but all of our conversations consistently have taken place, week after week, month after month, year over year, by the mailbox.
About two years ago our conversations began to change. I usually would see Ed outside of his house puttering around in his yard, trimming bushes, or picking up the loose palm fronds that had fallen from their two extraordinarily large palm trees. The next time that I saw Judy at the mailbox, I asked her, How’s Ed doing, I haven’t seen him outside lately? Judy nodded with that sad facial expression that you recognize quickly when something unhappy is about to be told. Oh, not good Jennifer, he has Alzheimers, Judy said. I am so sorry to hear that, I replied. His brother had it too. He’s driving me crazy Jennifer. He tells me he loves me over and over and over again. I can’t take it. He follows me around the house, room to room.
I am so sorry Judy, that’s hard. Do you have a good support system with family and friends? I asked. Judy’s reply was that over the years their circle of family and friends had shrunk and her kids lived far away with their own lives. Judy shared that her daughter lived in Key West, about eight hours away, and was undergoing her own personal grief with the sudden death of her husband.
Fast forward to present time and I continue to have conversations by the mailbox with Judy. I get the sense now that Judy intentionally waits for me to venture outside of my front door to get my mail. She then comes out to get her own. Judy talks and I listen. Judy has shared stories of Ed’s progression with the disease. She has shared that he sometimes yells so loud that she is afraid that all of our neighbors will hear him. Without sharing details, she has told me how they argue frequently.
Ed and Judy are in a tough spot. Physically, Ed looks okay. In fact, he looks pretty good for his 81-year-old body. Judy is 78 years old and it is she who actually appears to be aging more quickly than Ed. She is tired, she is worn out, and you see the stress and worry in her facial expressions. Their situation is getting worse, not better, and from what she has told me, Ed has no idea that anything is wrong or that anything has changed in their lives.
Recently by the mailbox, I asked Judy, What do you do to take care of you? What makes you happy Judy? Judy responded; I drive Jennifer. I drive. I put him in the car and I just drive because it’s the only time during the day when it’s easy for me. And I drive for a long time. He doesn’t know how long we are driving so it doesn’t matter.
What makes their situation difficult is that Ed has Alzheimers Disease and so he has good days and bad days. My approach to help them has been delicate, because it has to be, as they have not asked for my help. I have provided Judy with local caregiver community resources for when the time comes. The time is not now for either of them as they are that demographic of people who are so early on in the process, or the journey, or whatever title we want to call it, where they are not seeking resources. They have no idea how many great resources are available, and basically, they are navigating life day by day without fully comprehending how the day-to-day grind is taking its ugly toll on both of them. Ed still thinks he is fine, and Judy only understands what Ed’s doctor has shared, a diagnosis. It is a difficult spot to be in and my hunch is they are not alone in this bucket of people who eventually, by virtue of the Alzheimers progression, will seek help, but at this particular point in time, quite simply, choose not to. How do we reach this group? I often ponder.
Judy and I have had numerous conversations about the progression of Alzheimers and what to expect. However, beyond listening and spending a little more time by the mailbox with Judy, I am not able to directly help their situation. I am not an Alzheimers expert and I am not a clinician. I am just a neighbor having conversations by the mailbox. I only share with her what I have learned from working in the senior living industry. I encourage her when the time comes to utilize the amazing robust community resources available to both her and Ed. I encourage her to look up Teepa Snow on the internet and get familiar with greater Orlando’s Alzheimer’s Dementia and Resource Center. I share some details about the online resource DementiaMap.com. I encourage Judy to knock on my door at any time and for any reason, if she needs anything, I listen a little more closely and I listen more intensely. I must always remember that Judy has not asked for my help as I would never want to overstep my boundaries. I know in a strange way that I am that comfort zone for Judy, if only for a few minutes on a particular day, and perhaps for just that precise moment in time.
As I walk away from what is becoming more frequent conversations by the mailbox, I often wonder how many Ed and Judy’s are out there living within all of our communities. How many folks are there that while they are not ready to take advantage of community resources, move into a memory care community, or even participate in an adult day program, are struggling day to day with many challenges? How many Ed and Judy’s have virtually no family, no friends, and a limited support system, if any support system at all?
While quite often there is discussion about spatial and space changes, for the person living with Alzheimers Disease, I think we would be remiss not to recognize that spatial and space changes also take place for their spouse, especially when the spouse doesn’t realize that he/she has in fact become a full-time caregiver with no training. Judy self-admittedly drives for hours now. I also have a hunch that she purposefully waits for me to pick up my mail so she too can grab her mail, even when sometimes there is in fact no mail in her box. I notice, but does she? Judy’s world is changing because Ed’s world is changing.
I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but for now, I will continue to walk to my mailbox slowly, spend a little more time with Judy, and make our conversations by the mailbox count. What I do know is that spatial and space changes most certainly do affect both the person who has Alzheimers and their spouse. By virtue of that understanding through my experiences with Judy, my advice to anyone who knows an Ed or a Judy is: Be kind to thy neighbor.
*Names have been changed to protect thy neighbor.
Deanna is the National Sales Manager for Seni, a premium brand of adult incontinence products. She has an extensive 30-year background in healthcare sales and sales management. Deanna joined Seni in early 2019 to help expand the Seni brand presence on the US market and educate both consumers and senior living communities about the importance of choosing high quality, fully breathable products.