A Sister’s Love for P.E.O. Remains Through Fog of Dementia

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When my friend, Jean Kendall, AP, Winona, Minnesota, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009, she asked me to be her legal health-advocate. Widowed for eight years and her children living in distant states, Jean understood she needed some immediate guidance. I agreed, making it clear that I would help her navigate immediate decisions and with the understanding that she and her family would come to an agreement for a more sustainable arrangement moving forward. But “stuff” and family dynamics happen, so 13 years and four facilities later, Jean is still in Winona, and I am still her healthcare power of attorney.

I set out to learn everything I could about dementia in general, and Alzheimer’s in particular. Jean and I had been friends for many years, but I listened anew to her stories and made note of treasured memories. Along the way, I learned to meet Jean where she was at the moment—not where I wanted her to be, especially in circumstances that were becoming increasingly confusing and overwhelming for this once well-organized and highly successful businesswoman. Widely traveled, profoundly curious and ever the welcoming hostess, Jean at one time, could easily engage in thoughtful conversation covering art and culture, city planning and marketing, bridge games and traveling, music and Shakespeare, German beer and good Scotch.

As the fog of dementia enveloped Jean, I paid close attention to what resonated with her, and noted when things fell away. She had forgotten she had quit smoking 25 years earlier. She adored her brother, Jack, enjoyed fishing at the summer cabin, proudly called herself a daddy’s girl and preferred cats over dogs. Now, in the winter of her journey, what remains most is a continued dislike for country music, a deep and abiding love for her late husband, Dave, going outside regardless of weather—and P.E.O.

In 1959, Jean was encouraged to accept an invitation to join P.E.O. by her friend, Helen Hobart, who at the time was Dean of Women at Roanoke College, Jean’s alma mater. Chapter V, Salem, Virginia, was filled with women who so impressed Jean, she found it difficult to call them by their first names. She held each of the offices in order, starting with guard, and told me more than once that her least favorite office was treasurer: “I’ve never enjoyed working with figures.”

Over time, Chapter V grew so large, they had trouble finding a place to meet, so Jean requested permission to select a charter for another chapter; in 1970, Chapter AE, Salem was born, with Jean as its first president. Three years later, Jean remarried and moved to New Jersey, became a member of Chapter AB, Madison, and began putting her minor in drama to good use when it was her turn to provide the program. Having found her element, her style of programing continued when she and her husband retired to Minnesota and Jean became a member of Chapter AP, Winona, her final P.E.O. home. Of all the programs Jean presented over the years, by far, her favorite was her one-woman show featuring the life of Mary Todd Lincoln who she felt strongly, had “not been treated kindly by history.”

Now, wheelchair bound, and completely dependent for every aspect of her being, I visit Jean often, taking her on long strolls in the park adjacent to the skilled-care facility where she lives. No matter what kind of weather Minnesota delivers, Jean has a going-out-for-a-roll coat and a hat to go with it. Fewer than a dozen silver strands peek through her still thick and shiny, strawberry-red hair, always Jean’s favorite physical feature. The lines in her face illustrate the weariness of nearly 90 years of a life well-lived, but glows with the spirit of the gracious woman who remains inside. It is not at all a stretch to imagine a time when she was chosen to be Apple Blossom Queen.

Jean listens to her husband’s voice through headphones, an old recording from 1990 converted to MP3. Her face melts into a warm smile. She nods. “That’s right,” she says quietly but unmistakably.  “We did.”  It’s enough to soften the stonehearted. Then The P.E.O. Record arrives in the mail, and I read it to her cover to cover, finding something to discuss on every page. The issue is filled with convention news and amendments. Over Jean’s P.E.O lifetime, she was delegate to six state and one international convention.  “What do you think?”  I query.  “Do you want to go to next month’s convention?” Jean shakes her head, no. It’s time to pass the baton.

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