As a docent for the Darwin Martin House, I have had many memorable encounters with the guests who come to tour this local Frank Lloyd Wright landmark. But one stands out. Several years ago, a couple visited the area and I was their guide. Our initial meeting was repeated that evening when I again saw them at a performance of the Buffalo Philharmonic.
They accepted an invitation to join me and my husband for a drink afterward and, in conversation, we discovered many shared interests and experiences. A number of emails followed when the couple returned home, with possibilities to visit them someday.
That someday was realized almost six years later when a tentative email arrived wondering if we would like to visit their home in the Washington, D.C., area. Our hostess, now retired, promised transportation to and from the airport, getting us to the metro stop to go in to museums and home-cooked dinners each day.
Her husband, some years older than she, was now 96, frail and with signs of memory deficits. Her suggestion that we could escape the ravages of a Buffalo winter was combined, it seemed to me, with the unspoken possibility that we could bring some stimulation to their lives, now changed by her husband’s limitations.
Despite cautions from a neighbor who suggested, “this is a scam – they want your kidneys,” we accepted the invitation as one of life’s interesting opportunities.
True to our hostess’s word, we were met at the airport with a snack bag and water. Not wanting to waste valuable museum time, she took us directly to the Udvar-Hazy Center with assurances that she would pick us up in two hours. An amazing assemblage of flying machines, including the Enola Gay and the Concorde, kept us busy until closing.
Arriving at our destination in a beautiful wooded community, we were introduced to our host, a modestly dressed, quietly refined gentleman who seemed pleased to meet us. A comfortable family dinner and conversation followed before we retired for the evening.
As the days unfolded with visits to memorials and museums, we were able to appreciate our host’s failings: his need to conflate his experiences, (a gentle reality check offered by his wife) and frequent repetition. His manner was always considerate and pleasant, never combative or ornery. What stuck us most in these exchanges was the loving responses from his wife, who has been dealing with his dementia for some time. She has been able to nurture herself with exercise and a weekly visit to the “Memory Cafe,” where both can interact with similarly affected people and their caretakers.
She proudly presented the drawings her husband had created with the assist of an art therapist, trained in the method of Mneme therapy, that attempts to stimulate changes in the brain that help improve verbal skills, memory, spatial acuity and understanding instructions. Seeing the pride our host had in his work, he clearly demonstrated a sense of accomplishment.
As we processed our visit, I asked my husband if it had been difficult to converse with someone who kept repeating himself. His reply, “I didn’t want it to,” spoke volumes. We came away with our kidneys intact and a close-up view of the challenges of living with a person with dementia and the love, patience and skill to care for the individual but also one’s self. We applauded our hosts and ourselves for taking a chance and came away enriched beyond words.