For Patty Lewis, it has always been about family.
She raised 10 children – five sons and five daughters – and along the way they have given her 23 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
“Look what all she has done for us. She gave up so much in her life to raise us children,” said Michelle Popernack of Bobtown, Patty's youngest daughter. “Now it's our time to give back.”
Patty, 80, is never alone in her modest house in Garards Fort in Greene County. She can't be because Alzheimer's disease is slowly destroying her mind, clouding so many of the memories she and her children, and their children, and their children, have created over the years.
“But never in my life have I witnessed someone as loving as this woman. Yes, Alzheimer's may be destroying her mind, but it will never destroy her heart,” she said.
Patty's children are indeed giving back, with compassion, understanding and patience. But they also are making it possible for their mother to remain in her home, where she can walk outside or sit on a swing on the porch so she can look around and still appreciate the rural beauty of Greene County.
The family created a schedule – a calendar on a Gmail account – where sons, daughters and grandchildren sign up for shifts to stay with Patty. “Some of us do weekends, some of us do evenings; a lot depends on our work schedules, but we make it happen,” Michelle said.
Although Michelle said she has no difficulties being a caretaker, she said it's a little harder for her brothers. “I think daughters are just more nurturing.”
In addition to family members, three family friends do mostly the overnights. “I don't know what we would do without them,” Michelle said.
Patty had been married nearly 64 years to Isaac N. “Ike” Lewis Sr. Ike died April 16, 2013, and it was his death that really signalled to the children they had to step up.
“A year-and-a-half before our dad died, he was in the hospital for nine days, and even then we were providing care for her. We knew things were bad, but we didn't realize things were as bad as they were,” Michelle said.
Initially, things would be misplaced and bills would go unpaid, but Michelle firmly believes her dad covered for Patty, for perhaps longer than anyone realized.
Shortly after their dad died, a woman from the Alzheimer's Association met with the family. “She gave us some hints and ideas, which we were already doing at the time,” Michelle said. “But the most important thing she said was patience.”
Amy Myers, one of the 23 grandchildren, lives in Latrobe with her family, but she is originally from Carmichaels. Amy spearheaded last year's Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimer's, recruiting 77 walkers for “Nanny's Team,” and she is gearing up for this year's walk in Carmichaels in September.
“Last year Patty walked. It might have been just one lap, but she walked,” Amy said. “She is still very mobile.”
Patty and Michelle were sitting side-by-side, appropriately on a love seat in the living room – a room filled with photos of family and family events.
When Patty was asked if she knew who was sitting next to her, she said, “She's my daughter,” and the tears rolled down Michelle's cheeks.
“There are moments, there are days,” Michelle said
Neither Michelle nor Amy had any doubt the living arrangement is in Patty's best interest. “Certain things remain familiar. It is the best environment because there is always someone in and out of her house at all times,” Michelle said.
And one of those people is Linda Kimmel, one of the “family friend” caretakers.
“I met Patty 18 years ago through a neighbor, and as soon as I met her I fell in love with her. She is such a very special person,” Linda said.
She said one of the first things she observed in Patty was that she repeated things over and over. “But it is so hard to see her go downhill.”
Linda said Patty is more than a friend. “She is like a mother because I have known her for so long. When my mother died, we connected more because she always gave me motherly advice to make me a better person.”
There is little argument that two of the most important things in Patty's life now are her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “She just likes to sit and talk to them. She is a hugger and a kisser, and she likes babies; she raised enough of her own,” Michelle said.
Secondly, Patty loves music, and the overwhelming consensus is that Patty has an amazing voice. “She still sings, mostly church music,” Michelle said. “Music will bring her peace and calmness.”
And her favorite hymn? “The Old Rugged Cross.”
To her children, Patty remains the same woman she always was – caring, giving and the picture of love. And that's what makes this disease so malevolent.
“It breaks your heart because there is nothing you can do, except just do the best you can, and that's pretty much what we are doing,” Michelle said.