Good Morning. My name is Sharon Munson. My Husband Tom and I joined the Federated Church in 1980. Our three children went through Sunday school, children’s choir, and youth group with Mark. I taught Sunday school for many years, Tom sang in the Chancel Choir with Doc Foley and he was instrumental in raising money for the renovation of the Bell Street building in 1996. During those 36 years we’ve heard many sermons, enjoyed lots of beautiful music, and gotten to know many people. We feel very comfortable here.
About 8 years ago Tom sensed some changes in his behavior. He was getting confused about directions, missing exits on the freeway, having trouble keeping score in tennis, and losing confidence in the job he was doing at work. It took several years of Doctor appointments and medications that didn’t work before he had a Neuropsych test and PET scan which confirmed the dreaded diagnosis . He has Dementia of the Alzheimer’s type at 58 years old.
We never really said “why Me” or “Why us?” We’d been through these questions 30 years before when My father was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 59 years old. I’d already read Harold Kushner’s book “When Bad things Happen to Good People” and accepted his explanation “I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but I can only assume that some natural laws which we don’t understand are at work. I cannot believe that God “sends” illness to a specific person for a specific reason. The better question is “if this has happened to me, what do I do now, and who is there to help me do it?”
We have the diagnosis. What do we do now? Of course we told the kids who already suspected this possibility, but I was unsure if we should tell everyone right away for fear that they might treat us differently. Tom’s immediate response was to tell everyone and so he did. He didn’t want people to suspect something else when he was struggling.
Since most of Tom’s friends were still working, what could we do to keep him engaged? One thing I did was call the Church and they set us up with an Angel visitor who would come over and visit with Tom once a week. My sister Leslie had a great idea as the tennis coach at Chagrin High School. She arranged for Tom to be an assistant coach with her so he could spend his afternoons cheering on the tennis players and feeling like he was doing something worthwhile. Another wonderful situation developed while Tom was shopping for new running shoes. He ran into a young man, Sandy Hridel, who grew up on our street and grew up going to this church. Tom told Sandy of his disease and that he had a dream of running the Boston Marathon. We found a note in our mail box several days later from Sandy. He wanted to help Tom train for that goal and for the better part of the next year Sandy ran with Tom at least 3 times a week. He also answered many phone calls about timing, weather, stretching etc. They didn’t make it to the Boston Marathon but they did run the Cleveland Marathon together with our daughter Annie. Sandy gave Tom a purpose and a goal for over a year. That was the most amazing gift of time, patience, and generosity.
The more people we told, the more help, kindness, and wisdom we received. An acquaintance suggested that we get involved with the Alzheimer’s Association. We began attending the early stage group that met at the Solon rec center. From this large group a smaller group of 5 or 6 couples developed a strong bond and friendship. We organized an afternoon a week together at someone’s house sharing the care for our husbands. We began to plan outings together enjoying movies, dinners, and museums. This was a relationship that made us all feel normal because we were with people who truly understood. This group of Alzheimer’s friends has not only made this journey bearable but actually brought some joy.
Life goes on and we have a wedding here at the church and grandbabies are born, but the reality of Alzheimer’s disease does not go away.
I decided that downsizing would probably make sense. We were in our house of 37 years, two stories, a large yard to maintain and lots of accumulated stuff.
I put the house on the market not knowing where we would go if and when it sold. It sold in about 5 months and the buyers wanted to take possession in 5 weeks. My children all live out of town. How was I alone going to accomplish this move in 5 weeks?
Within days of hearing the news my two good friends came to my house, clipboard in hand, packing supplies in the car, and a plan. They got the names and emails of all my old and new friends and sent them all an e mail of my situation and a schedule of when they could sign up to come over and help pack. These friends also helped me hire a woman to organize and estate sale. My children all came home for a weekend to help decide what to pitch, what to save, what to sell. And then our friends all came on their scheduled day to pack boxes and move boxes to storage. Some came on moving day to oversee the movers and someone else entertained Tom for the day.
Thank you to my Mom and Myron, who let us stay in their home for 5 months until we found a place of our own. While living with Mom one generous couple insisted we come over for home cooked dinners several times a week claiming “it was just as easy to cook for 4 as for 2”.
We found a condo. Back came the friends, neighbors, and family to help us move in, unpack, make up the beds, hang blinds, and move out of storage.
We are now somewhat settled into our new home but we are not forgotten. Tom regularly gets invited for walks and lunch by his brother and several friends. Another friend often picks Tom up from the Orange Senior center and drives him home to save me the trip. And yet another friend just stops in at the senior center to sit and visit with Tom and sometimes dance if there is music. Others call and invite us to dinner and the movies.
As this disease has progressed there are some limitations, but Tom remains very comfortable here at the church. Since we’ve been here so long he knows his way around, he is always greeted by smiling faces with eager handshakes. He loves singing along to familiar hymns and socializing in the fellowship hall after church. We also enjoy Wondrous Wednesday’s and many Prime Time activities with Dolly. People with dementia and their caregivers do much better if they stay connected socially. Participating in non-threatening, low pressure situations and continuing to communicate is very beneficial.
Harold Kushner refers to a book published in 1912 titled Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, which suggests “the primary purpose of religion at its earliest level was not to put people in touch with God, but to put them in touch with one another. Religious rituals taught people how to share with their neighbors the experiences of birth and bereavement, of children marrying and parents dying. In that way, the community would be able to share the most joyous and the most frightening moments of life. No one would face them alone. We need to be reminded that we are part of a community, that there are people around who care about us and that we are still part of the stream of life.” That is what the Federated Church and the greater Chagrin Valley Community has done for us and our family.
The Federated Church is working with the Alzheimer’s Association to build awareness and become a dementia friendly congregation. The Wondrous Wednesday Event in November will be devoted to Alzheimer’s and other dementia. There will be information in Fellowship hall after the service if anyone is interested.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, I cannot imagine how storms can be navigated, burdens borne, and hardships handled without the company of a few good friends. I praise you today for the gift of friendship, for the joy, encouragement, and refreshment you give me through my friends.