April 30, 2010

USA: Elderly couple copes with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and unwelcome idleness

MOUNT PLEASANT, Michigan / Central Michigan Life  / April 30, 2010

Richard Stillion, left, smiles as he watches his wife Alma play with their dog Hawk’s ears in their living room Wednesday in Lake. The couple has been married for 50 years and currently are both living for each other through developing diseases. Richard, 71, has Alzheimer’s disease and Alma, 77, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two year ago. “We live for each other,” Richard said. “She is everything to me. All we have left is one another. Most of our friends have died. We’ve made it 50 years together and we’re going to make it as many more as we can.” 
Photos by Jake May/Staff Photographer

Elderly couple copes with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and unwelcome idleness

By Randi Shaffer, staff reporter for Central Michigan Life

Richard and Alma Stillion vividly remember getting married on March 3, 1960.

They remember the day they met, raising Alma’s five sons and working until retirement.

But Richard’s memories are fading fast.

Richard, 71, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and Alma, 77, is suffering from Parkinson’s, giving the Stillions new hurdles to jump and struggles to adapt to every day.

“It’s a challenge,” Richard said.

Richard met Alma while she was living in Ann Arbor, recently divorced and working at a drive-in to save money for beauty school and to support her five sons. Alma came within one exam of her beauty school graduation, before a trip to the hospital showed she had allergies from the products she would use in her profession.

She switched to a job in retail while Richard continued his employment, working in several different tool and die shops before moving to Westland and then Lake. After the move, Alma’s health problems began.

“The doctor retired me in 1990 after I had a …” she said. “Massive heart attack,” Richard said, finishing her statement.

Alma clearly remembers the moment. While eating dinner with her family she suddenly began to feel ill. Her family hauled her out of the house, into the car and to the hospital, she said. That was in December 1990, Alma’s last day of work and the start of more problems to come.

She suffered a stroke in 2003, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004 after falling and hitting her head. In about 2007, Alma underwent surgery to have a pacemaker implanted and will have a heart fibulator placed within the next few months.

Richard underwent a quadruple bypass heart operation in 1999 and began to develop Alzheimer’s disease about two years ago.

Busy to bored

After her unexpected retirement, Alma began feeling isolated from her former life of work and church activities. She picked up crocheting and craft work as a way to keep busy.

“It’s been miserable and, of course, it just keeps getting worse,” she said. “There’s not much you can do about it. It’s kind of hard for a person who’s been busy, just always doing something. Now I’m just sitting around, staring at four walls.”

Alma said her Parkinson’s comes with shakes and an overall loss of balance, and it keeps getting worse. She cannot walk without a crutch and she needs help from Richard with everyday tasks like showering.

Richard and Alma receive help from Isabella County’s Commission On Aging.

The COA’s Senior Companion program sends two different workers to the Stillion’s little house on a dirt road in Lake four times a week to entertain them and help them out with the various daily life necessities.

“I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have these ladies,” Richard said.

Pat Blankenship is one of the two workers from the COA’s Senior Companion program that spends a few hours a day, two days a week with the Stillions. She was matched with the Stillions nine years ago by her supervisor at the COA and she continues to work with them and visit them.

“I like it a lot,” she said.

Richard has expressed great gratitude for both Blankenship and his other senior companion assistant, Sue. He said he feels safer running errands or going outside and leaving Alma alone when one of the two ladies was over, especially since their companionship has saved Alma’s life before.

A few years ago, Sue came to stay with Alma while Richard was downstate. Alma hadn’t had her pacemaker put in yet and was still having troubles with her heart. During Richard’s leave, she fainted while standing, leaving Sue to catch her and take appropriate emergency actions.

“There was really no warning,” Alma said.

With all of the challenges the couple face, they said their future seems slow, with no plans for vacations from every day life in sight.

“It’s not going to get any better, but hopefully it won’t get worse for awhile,” Richard said. “ “Sometimes I’ll just have to stop and think about something for a minute, but I think for the condition I’m in, I’m doing pretty good.” [rc]

Randi ShafferE-mail: shaff1rm@cmich.edu

© 2010 Central Michigan Life

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