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A love story for the ages

Mary's Woods couple experiences high highs, low lows
by: Kirsten Forbes,

'Did you ever think about being a minister?'

So many years have passed since his then-girlfriend Julia asked Forster Freeman this question. He'd been studying at Princeton University, planning to become a lawyer. He had his future carefully mapped out in his mind. And no, he'd never thought about becoming a minister.

But he listened to Julia. She, at the time, was a student at Mount Holyoke College. She was beautiful, smart and friendly. Her opinion mattered a great deal to Forster.

He took her advice, eventually serving in two different denominations. He holds a doctorate degree in spiritual direction. On this and other issues, Julia's opinions and suggestions guided his decisions.

Of course, this was years ago - before they married, before they had four kids, before he worked as a spiritual director, before she became a minister's wife, before they watched their children grow, before they scouted out retirement communities and before the dementia hit Julia.

She can no longer advise Forster. Some days, she gets frustrated and overwhelmed at having to choose chicken or fish for dinner. When this happens, she looks toward Forster and asks him what he is having.

If he's having chicken, she orders chicken as well.

For several years now, Forster has been the one making the decisions. Julia, once so steadfast and independent that she turned down an offer to take on honors work in college ('She didn't want to work that hard, and she didn't need it for her ego'), no longer lives in the independent apartments at Mary's Woods Continuing Care Retirement Community at Marylhurst in Lake Oswego with Forster. She now spends her days in the memory care unit, working with health care professionals who sometimes have to remind her how to tie her shoes.

A thoughtful and candid man, Forster admits that he's heartbroken. The beating of this broken heart is almost audible as he sits in Director of Marketing Cheri Mussotto-Conyers' office in Mary's Woods and says, 'It's just so sad to have this happen to Julia - to happen to any human being, especially if it's your true love.'

But then, his eyes light up.

'On the other hand,' he says, 'I also want to be sure to make it very clear that I'm very grateful to be here (at Mary's Woods).'

Coming here, after all, was a calculated decision.

'When we first started looking at places - retirement communities - I knew that it needed to be a continuing care place for us because she was already showing some dementia signs. So we looked at several in the Portland area and one down in Eugene, and this one impressed us the most for numerous reasons.'

The term 'continuing care' refers to a retirement center that offers independent living for healthy seniors, as well as a health care program that continues throughout all phases of the aging process. At Mary's Woods, the Marie-Rose Health Center facilitates seniors in need of assisted living, special care or skilled nursing.

Although it's all housed in a single facility, there is a vast difference in the lives of those living in the different sectors. Many of the residents on the independent living side participate in daily activities ranging from yoga to watercolor painting to French classes to aqua aerobics.

Opportunities abound to join coffee clubs and knitting groups and grief support classes. They're invited to take educational excursions and to mentor students and attend lectures and classes.

Residents on this side enjoy an active and incredibly independent lifestyle.

'Moving into the independent side at Mary's Woods is like moving into a resort,' Mussotto-Conyers explains, adding that residents must be independent at the time of move-in and there's now a one- to two-year waiting list to be admitted. 'You just have all of these services and amenities at your fingertips.'

Some of these services and amenities include a lap-size swimming pool, spa, woodworking shop, walking trails, gardens, housekeeping, laundry and transportation.

Then, there is the other side. Mussotto-Conyers says that when residents transfer to the health center, the goal is to preserve their independence and activity level as much as possible. Still, the frailty and declining health that lands residents here requires assistance, care and staff attention. A truly independent lifestyle becomes a thing of the past.

Here, the services and amenities include 24-hour nursing care, a clinic nurse and assistance with daily living activities.

Sometimes, the residents on the independent side don't want to think about the health center - not yet. They're not ready to visualize a life that includes constant help and care.

But sometimes, like in Forster's case, there is no choice but to face the realities of life on the other side of the center. He witnesses it daily, every time he goes to visit Julia for lunch and dinner.

Some days are harder than others, he says. For the most part, despite her advanced memory loss, she still remembers who he is.

'She still knows me, and that's a wonderful help,' Forster says. 'She's glad to see me, as I am to see her.'

But she's not the same Julia.

For a long time, Forster tried to go it alone, taking care of Julia himself and doing the best he could.

Then, last August, he realized it was time to step up her professional health care.

'I finally was convinced that I couldn't handle it anymore, adequately for her benefit or for mine.'

So one day, while a friend took her out to lunch, Julia and Forster's two daughters decorated her new room in the special memory care unit, just the way their mother would want it.

'Oh, isn't this nice!' was Julia's only reaction when they showed her the new living space.

'I never quite explained to her what was going on because she couldn't comprehend,' Forster explains.

Forster says Julia was welcomed nicely. The nurses' aides, and other staff members have treated her with kindness and care, dignity and respect.

'The aides are so good-natured, mostly. They know how to humor Julia in a loving way for what she needs to do - do her toileting, eat her meals.'

'We noticed it was a process for Forster,' Mussotto-Conyers says. 'Because he cared for Julia for quite a long time, and we could see Julia's decline, but we could also see the toll it was taking on (him). Not just the emotional sadness of seeing your true love go through that, but also the physical toll that it was taking, just trying to care for her.'

'Yeah, that's right, I did have some physical symptoms,' Forster agrees.

The transition happened in stages - starting with a few hours at a time, when a nurse would come tend to Julia so Forster could get away for a while, to play tennis or do something for himself.

'You don't realize, when you're in the middle of caring for someone like that, that you need to take care of yourself, too,' Mussotto-Conyers explains.

'Yeah, I was sleeping on the floor,' Forster confesses. 'She was noisy. We used to have an agreement. If one of us snored, the other one would say, 'Please turn over.' But she got to the point where she couldn't get it. So I used an air mattress in the living room every night. And that kind of thing is wearing.'

'Sometimes just sitting down and standing up is confusing,' Forster notes of Julia's current mental state. But he's comforted, knowing she's in good hands.

'Starting with the Sisters of Holy Names, who established this place,' Forster says, 'We've been so welcomed. We're not Catholic, but we're part of the family.'

The Sisters' influence at Mary's Woods is apparent in everything from the renovated 1910 Provincial House to the Mary's Woods mission statement, which 'seeks to ensure provision of a range of living options from independent to skilled care. Health care and supportive services enrich the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of each resident.'

Mussotto-Conyers is reminded of this message and vision every time she sits in her office, when the bright red hat at the top of her coat rack catches her eye. It is a hat that belonged to her mother-in-law, a kind woman who spent her last years isolated and lonely because she refused to leave her house and give up her independence.

Meanwhile, Forster is enjoying a revival in his independence at Mary's Woods.

'I just got asked to go into the tango class!' Forster says, laughing.

He performs in plays (the residents write their own scripts). He chairs the Ecumenical Celebrations Committee. He plays at the Portland Tennis Center - 'This 80-year-old gets out there and plays!' he says. He walks daily - 'I try to be intentional about that.' He socializes with his neighbors and other residents.

And several times a day, he visits with Julia, his wife and his love.

'She has the most beautiful smile and the most welcoming eyes and is so full of life - such a brilliant woman,' Mussotto-Conyers says of Julia.

'Once in a while, she gets fussy and angry with me and tells me she wants me to go away,' Forster says. 'But other times, she wants a kiss.'

Forster is always happy to oblige.

Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer. To view her blog, visit www.krissymick.blogspot.com . To view the Mary's Woods Web site visit www.maryswoods.com .