It’s a rainy February night in Nashville and we are poring over photographs spread across the kitchen table. Jannette points to two photos of Vicky standing at a fence. In one, a beautiful brown horse nuzzles her neck, and in the other, Vicky’s arm lovingly extends as she pets the animal. Her smile in the photo is innocent, pure and full of goodness. Jannette has been Vicky’s companion for more than ten years, and from time to time they’d travel to Jannette’s hometown of Waynesboro, TN. It was on this particular trip that a neighboring horse was unusually gentle and calm upon meeting Vicky.
“He came right up and pressed his face against hers, I’d never seen him do that before,” Jannette explained. Vicky and the horse shared a moment and the horse lingered, wanting to stay close to Vicky. Jannette couldn’t get a photo in time of the horse pressing his face right to Vicky’s, but she is adamant about how special it was.
She shares other photos from that trip: fishing, time outdoors, as well as the many others from their more than ten years together. “Hat Day” was a favorite annual occasion. The two would make a whole day of going to different stores, trying on hats and taking pictures. “You have to make your own fun,” she chuckled, “And we had a lot of it.”
It’s hard not to feel a mix of emotions as we go over photographs. The photos tell a beautiful, vibrant story of life, of friendship. But they are just that – stories and memories from the past, from a different era.
Vicky was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease shortly before Jannette began to support her. There were slight declines over their decade together, but the major declines occurred within the last two years. Today Vicky does not speak, and spends most of her time in her room in a hospital bed. Hospice is now involved in her care.
I asked Jannette if Vicky communicated in the past.
“This girl talked from the time she woke up, ‘till the time she went to sleep. She’d talk in the bathroom, she’d talk all day. I’d ask her, ‘Vicky, who are you talking to?’ and she’d say ‘myself.’” Jannette laughed as she recalled the time another staff member filled in one night when she wasn’t there. “We always watched family friendly shows. Well, I came back the next day, and Vicky was going on about this dream she had.” As the day went on, the story grew. Jannette began to suspect Vicky may have been watching a crime show the night before. “She dreamt she was in a motel…and there was a guy with a gun who shot someone. Well, she got the gun and put it in a dumpster!” The dream grew all day and by nighttime Vicky was still talking about it. “Someone was murdered and she saw it,” Jannette was sure Vicky had never had a dream like this before, but the excitement of solving the mystery in her dream occupied the entire day.
There were other funny stories too. Vicky often called Jannette “Stacy” as a part of the dementia. “She called me Stacy so much, I told her I’m going to change my name to Stacy.” Jannette paused, “Right now I’d give anything to hear her yell ‘Stacy!’ from her room.”
Jannette’s road to becoming a companion was not an obvious path. Like many others in this field, a series of life events led her to Progress. Years before, Jannette’s son Willie passed away from cancer, and she cared for him throughout his illness. Though the experience was a tragedy, it provided her with a unique perspective that would later be applicable in her role with Progress.
At the time Jannette came to Progress, it was 2008 and she worked at a factory that made housing materials. As the recession began to unfold, her hours were reduced, and she began to search for a new opportunity. Her former sister in-law was a Progress employee, and knowing Jannette’s history and heart, suggested she become a companion.
During their first year together, Jannette and Vicky formed a close bond. “We had a ball, we got to do everything. We went shopping, went to the waterpark, movies, whatever we wanted to do, we did it.” As the years passed, another roommate joined Vicky, but their bond remained close.
Vicky’s sister Pat is also very involved in her life, and explained some of the things that make her so special. “Vicky was a sweet child. She didn’t have the chance to experience all the things you and I might experience, but she never complained about anything.” At the time Vicky was born, children with disabilities were not given an education, and Pat wondered how different Vicky’s life might have been had she been in school. Vicky was especially close to her mother, but now Pat is the only remaining family in Vicky’s life. Pat is incredibly grateful for what Jannette has done. “Jannette has meant the world to Vicky, I don’t know what we would have done without her.” Pat credits Jannette as being like a mother to Vicky, and explained with certainty, “I truly believe that God sent Jannette to us.”
As the evening goes on, Jannette shares more stories, and we go over more pictures. There are pictures from a trip to Chattanooga. Pictures of gardening. Pictures on a river boat. Pictures from Prom. Pictures with Santa. Pictures playing puzzles. And those dear pictures of trying on hats.
“A lot of people with dementia get angry or violent as the disease progresses. But with each decline, she’s still sweet. If you could see her in the mornings when she first wakes up, I’ll look at her and she smiles at me, that sweet, innocent smile.” Jannette reflects even more, “I get glimpses of her still. There are times when she knows you, and you know her… and it’s her spirit that’s actually there.”
I asked Jannette how difficult the last few years have been. “I really love Vicky. It’s hard to watch. But I can’t imagine not being here. I know if I’m here, she’ll be taken care of until the end. Not that it’s not going to hurt.”
Jannette and I flip through the albums one last time. “Reflecting over the good times we’ve had helps to make this time easier,” she explained. I asked if there was anything else she wanted to share about Vicky and she simply said, “Being with Vicky has made me a better person.”
In the moments and memories scattered in photographs on the table, a narrative so sweet and gentle and joy-filled can be felt without the need for words or explanation. Even though Vicky can no longer speak, the pictures say a hundred thousand beautiful words.
Lily Wojcik, PR/Events Manager Progress