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Rhonda, her caregiver, her daughter

Rhonda told me, desperately searching for a way to fight off the tears that were filling her endlessly deep, blue, ocean-like, eyes, “Today’s the one year anniversary, but I know she’s much better now,” referring to the death of her mother.

Rhonda Pepper was her mother, Vera Ruth Goodrich’s caregiver. She was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD). This is due to progressive nerve cell loss in the brain’s frontal lobes; it is the area behind the forehead or just behind the eyes.

Mrs. Goodrich, who went by Ruth to all who knew her, was a respected, long-time banker in Rocky Ford and La Junta. She had lived in her home with her son Richard after the passing of her husband, Rhonda’s father, but about six years ago, Rhonda started noticing some behavior changes in her mother. “She started getting up in the middle of the night and getting dressed. She would set the table for the entire family. She was doing things out of nature, financially,” Rhonda said.

This was the first of many cues in a succession, including, to Rhonda’s dismay, Ruth, who was still driving, got completely lost during a blizzard, ending all the way up in Limon. “This was in the early spring of 2009. I didn’t think we’d find her,” said Rhonda, whose husband Tracy, son Dylan and brother Richard made the drive, picking Ruth up from a diner.

She was already living with Rhonda and her husband at that point. “She moved in with us in January of 2009 but we didn’t get the diagnosis of Frontotemporal Dementia until May. Finally, everything we had been experiencing, it pulled it all together,” said Rhonda, with a look that can only be described as bittersweet. They finally had the answers to the why? but now what?

Caregivers are so often put in this role or a position of a role reversal.

Rhonda said in the beginning her mother could stay home alone. “Friends came in to take her to do things. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they would take her to the Senior Center in La Junta and Swink.” Rhonda, who is a poised person, said she tried to maintain a level of organization as a caregiver, she kept things structured. “Mom would get up and get herself dressed in the morning and then I would leave her lists of little jobs to do while I was at work. She would take care of the dogs for example.” Rhonda said the fear of her wondering off was ever-looming.

In the fall of 2010 doctors confirmed that an auto accident that Ruth had been involved in during the summer excelled the progression of her FTD, compounding her dementia. Rhonda quit her job to stay at home with her mother full time. She said, with love and compassion, “That was my job.”

Prior to the accident Ruth was able to talk and walk, with assistance, but Rhonda said all of that faded. “Even though she didn’t speak, I could tell her disposition through her eyes. I could tell if she liked someone or a situation,” said Rhonda, her daughter, her caregiver.

As a full-time caregiver, Rhonda sought outside help a few hours a week, bringing in respite care. “This allowed me some down-time. I could go sit at the park and read a book; go to my own doctor appointments; attend group meetings for caregivers; it just allowed me to remove myself from the environment and recharge my batteries.”

Until or unless someone is in the position of being a caregiver, people don’t realize the effects, physically and emotionally, it has on them. The term respite literally translates to a time of rest.

Rhonda shared with me how blessed she felt to be able to quit her job and stay at home with her mother. “She made my life better,” she said. She also shared the realistic views behind closed doors and what it’s really like to care for an ailing adult. “It’s like taking care of an adult infant. Every two hours I would take her to the bathroom; I would shower her; I dressed her; I would change her wet and soiled pants; I would feed her.” Rhonda also said she was never fully rested, only sleeping lightly at night because she always had one ear on her mother.

As a dutiful and loving caregiver, Rhonda remained loyal to her mother’s lifelong regiments and to the things that made her life quality, making sure her hair was properly set, lips were adorned with lipstick each and every day and her favorite food was prepared and fed to her. Rhonda said, “I think it’s important, even for the CareProvider coming in to know the schedule, to know what she likes, what her favorite foods are.”

Ruth passed away on November 30, 2014. Rhonda said that while she was able to spend time with her mother during her final months, she really misses the conversation that they once shared, which is the sad part of dementia.

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