One late summer day in 2018 I saw a man walk into our backyard. It looked as if he were looking for someone. I went to the back door and asked if I could help him. He explained that he had heard about Hope & A Future and he wanted to talk with someone about the care we provide. He told me that he had a wife with early onset dementia that he no longer felt comfortable leaving alone at home. He felt it was time to look into finding a care facility for her. Hope & A Future had been recommended to him. I explained that we were quite different from most long term care settings. One of the biggest differences being that as the RN and Executive Director I literally live onsite with my husband who is an Occupational Therapist. We also have other family members and staff, some with children living on site. We are a licensed Adult Family Home which is the smallest type of licensed assisted living in Wisconsin. I told Bruce that in many ways we are able to function more like a family of friends sharing a home than like a traditional long term care setting. We talked for a while and I recommended he bring his wife and any family members that wanted to come to one of our monthly potlucks. This way they could get a feel for who we are and to see how his wife responded in our setting. Bruce said, “That would be a good idea–especially for Deborah. You will see when you meet her. She decides instantly if she loves you or not. And she seldom changes her mind. I think she will like you.” Deborah and I met at the next potluck and she greeted me with the kind of hug you give an old friend you are surprised and delighted to see. Bruce and I smiled at each other and we put her on our waiting list.
When Deborah moved in she was still up and walking and able to communicate fairly well. She absolutely loved listening to music, singing and dancing. When my husband and daughters practiced music, she was there with them–singing and dancing. And if she came into the kitchen looking for something to do, we would put on one of her CDs and it became an instant party. Her joy was so contagious! We would all start dancing and singing with her. Staff and residents together! Part of her dancing included dramatic expressions and we all caught on quickly. What joy!
We went through the pandemic with her in our home and although it was obvious she missed hugging and kissing her family, she learned to enjoy communicating through windows, technology and a structure we called the bubble. We built it with the help of Claudia, a caregiver that had worked with Deborah in her home and became a happy part of our staff when Deborah moved in. People could walk into the construction plastic “bubble” from an outside door and then stayed inside of the structure to visit. People could take off masks and see full faces and hear voices through the plastic sealed window. Deborah loved these visits.
Deborah was a genuinely fun friend to live with. Although she lived with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, her essence of joy, love and silly fun came through. She sometimes spoke in funny accents, including; English, Irish or Southern Belle. Sometimes she spoke a little in French and Spanish. She could be Absolutely silly and saucy. She was both playful and unusually perceptive. Two of my three daughters work full time with us. One day Ruthie was having a frustrating time. In the midst of her frustration, she looked up at Deborah who was watching her. Deborah was already in hospice care and due to her physical needs spent her days in a special Broda Wheelchair. From this chair, Deborah smiled at Ruthie and mouthed the words, “I love you!” Ruthie felt so loved that she teared up in thankfulness and felt better instantly. I have had days when Deborah picked up on my stress. She would look at me with concern and ask, “Are things not?” And I would tell her what I was worried about and she would start blowing me kisses. And soon I felt better. She communicated and understood a lot with minimal words. As a staff we could often read her body language. Deborah was expressive physically even when she could not move much. Her facial expressions and sounds communicated a great deal of understanding, affection, frustration, occasionally sadness, anger or the simple need for chocolate. She was mostly a joyful loving and healing presence in our home.
When her family visited, the love in her eyes and on her face was really a delight to behold. And the fun she had with her brothers was epic. They sang and laughed and teased and hugged. While Deborah may have been born with an extra splash of “joy to be” her life was not without trauma and pain. Soon after Deborah moved in with us, her daughter shared with me that she had often asked her Mother how she could be so joyful in the midst of her Alzheimer’s journey. Deborah’s answer was “I choose joy”. Sara talked more about Deborah’s joy and over flowing love at Deborah’s memorial service. She shared that her Mom was not just a superhero of love and joy. Her Mom worked to love herself and forgive herself. As a result of this work, Deborah became more loving and forgiving of everyone she came in contact with. To me, Deborah was the model for great community living. She was genuinely loving and forgiving–and others flourished in her presence. While Deborah had a special sparkle in her eye for her family, she genuinely loved and cared for everyone she was with–this continued as long as she had breath on this earth.
Over the years Deborah lived with us, we would often say things to each other like, “I think Deborah enjoys . . . or I think Deborah does not like it when . . . “ and we would all be in agreement on what her body language was communicating. She could be funny with just a word or sound. She regularly had everyone laughing around the table. She was engaged. And the result was that she was not lonely. She knew the secret of connection–genuine love. While we cared for her, she cared for us.
There were some hard spots to work through in the years she was with us. Alzheimers is relentless. And there were some times when hard parts of her personal history became her present. During these seasons, she seemed to have to work through past trauma as if it was happening now. We worked together as a team until we were able to help her make her way back to a happier place. We were all grateful for the camaraderie we had with her husband, daughters, extended family, friends and medical team. While Bruce waited for an opening at Hope & A Future for Deborah he placed her in another bigger memory care unit. Her family shared that when they went to visit her there, they would often find her standing in the middle of her room rocking back and forth and crying. My thinking is that when your mind is no longer dependable and you are not sure who the ever changing people around you are–the result may feel like that of being a lost child in a sea of anxiety. I am so grateful that we never saw this behavior after she moved in with us. Offering a stable family of caregivers gave Deborah a nearly instant sense of safety and stability. She settled into our home very quickly. When fears did come from the progression of her disease we worked together to find a path back to her happy place of love and fun. I believe Deborah genuinely flourished in the love she felt and gave in the midst of Alzheimer’s Disease. She enjoyed her days.
From what I learned of Deborah’s life, she always loved to have fun and she was always a lover of the human race. She wrote poetry, danced and helped people find their own joy. Her obituary outlined the vastly different jobs she had–all of them with the common denominator of helping people. She was a healer through social work, massage therapy, dance therapy, and a helper through politics and WHEDA–Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. My grandson was born during the pandemic and because my daughter works with us, he has grown up with Deborah loving him. When he was a baby she would sit and talk and play with him for hours. They comforted and enjoyed each other. Leon will forever benefit from all of that loving attention. And Deborah was happier because of his adoring gaze and smiles. This is part of the intergenerational magic we regularly enjoy. Deborah and her loved ones will always be an essential part of the history of our Family Of Friends at Hope & A Future. We have all learned how to be better community members through her. I believe her model of living was; enjoy, love and forgive yourself and then do that for everyone you come in contact with.
There is another part of being a community person that I think Deborah enjoyed too. This is the part where if you do not know how to do something well, pair up with someone else that has your missing skill! At her memorial service, Deborah’s brother shared that although Deborah needed significant encouragement to put school work on her priority list as a teenager, she was drawn to self directed men. And she eventually found one in her husband. In looking at her accomplishments over time it appears that she became more self directed as a result of her marriage. This is an aspect of community living I enjoy. Learning from and enjoying the gifts of others and by continued association–gaining new ways of thinking, being and doing. I feel that I have been able to stop to enjoy more moments because of Deborah and her family. Bruce told me that “Except when I had to take away her driver’s license, Deborah was never mad about her disease. And she was never upset about being here. But the life she lived here would not have been possible anywhere else.” I think he is correct. We need more places like this. Places where we can rub each other into new ways of enjoying life. I am so grateful I was privileged to share a home with Deborah and her visiting family and friends.
On July 29th, 2023 Deborah, suffered a serious stroke that left her without the strength to sit upright in her wheelchair or the ability to swallow more than a few drops at a time. Her family and friends gathered around her during her last weeks of life. We worked to keep her comfortable and watched her slip into a world that we could not go into with her. She looked at and talked with people we could not see. She appeared to be experiencing love from both sides of a veil that was getting thinner as she prepared to leave her earthly body and pass to what’s next.
The last few days of Deborah’s life, I woke up dreaming that my husband and daughters were singing a song Rick wrote called, “Into Eternity”. Some of the words are “Come child and go with me, into eternity where the forever begins.” In my dream they were singing to Deborah. She had enjoyed this song in the past and I thought we should play it for her. But the right time never seemed to present itself when Rick, Katie and Ruth were all together. On August 16th around 2PM Deborah’s husband Bruce said he needed to go talk with a contractor. When he left I went to sit with her and felt it would be a good time to play some music for her. Ruthie came in and played songs on her fiddle that Deborah used to sing like La Vie En Rose, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Con Te Partiro, and Mamma Mia. As Ruthie played, Deborah’s rapid breathing began to slow and so did her pulse. Then I asked Katie and Ruth if they could sing Into Eternity without their Dad. They could not and Leon needed to go outside to burn off some energy. So Ruthie took him and another resident, Brad, out for a walk. Katie played Into Eternity from an online source. At 2:25 PM, while listening to this song, Deborah Ann Garfield Wunnicke made a little smile and gave out one last happy and relieved sounding sigh as one last tear dropped from her eye. The atmosphere in her room was filled with joy, peace and love. And just like that she crossed over from this life to the next. Outside, Brad suddenly looked up and said, “Whoa, it looks like someone slipped away!” Ruthie asked who and he motioned in the direction he was looking as if to say, “take a look for yourself” but she could not see what he was seeing. She looked at her phone and it was 2:25 PM. When Ruthie, Brad and Leon came back into the house we told them that Deborah had passed and that Bruce and Sara would be at the house soon. Brad stated, “Of course. I know.” Ruth asked what time she passed and I told her, 2:25. She teared up and shared her story. We all teared up. Brad currently has very poor short term memory and he no longer remembers this moment–which is also too amazing for me to understand. Like Deborah he is now only in the current moment. This moment sometimes includes the past. Then and now seem to become one. I sometimes wonder if this is what eternity may be like–simultaneously fully present in then, now and the future.
I am hoping we will keep what Deborah taught us in our present and future moments. As I look at our capital campaign, I will admit to you that I would love nothing more than for donations to come in her memory over the coming months that would add up to allow us to name a space in our planned expansion in her honor. If you have been touched by Deborah’s life or story, please consider making a donation that will help us expand our community. A community that helps each person enjoy, love and forgive themselves and each other. A community where we learn to live inclusively and build equity for each other. My dream is that we can begin to change the world one fully living and loving intergenerational neighborhood at a time.
Until we meet again,