When Lou and Annie Green opened the Memory and Wellness Center on the campus of Florida Atlantic University 17 years ago, I had no idea the impact it would have on anyone affected by memory issues like Alzheimer’s. As I compose this column for our December issue, I realize that I can count five close friends who have been diagnosed with this monstrous and disabling brain disease; one is a brilliant 58-year-old money manager, while the others are older and were diagnosed at various times in the past few years.
These are all interesting and successful people who are now relegated to a life of anger, blank stares, confusion and, ultimately, no recognition of family, friends or spouses. One called me last night three times and asked what time we were going to get together when we had just seen him the night before.
Another, who lives out of state, often calls to ask my wife why we never see one another. One person, who most consider a tough, brilliant businessman, tends to sit alone with a vacant stare, only responding, if addressed, in one-word answers.
I cannot begin to understand the tragic personality change which reduces people to someone friends and caregivers no longer know. But it is these people that Boca resident Susie Doyle reaches every day, patiently working with them at the Memory and Wellness Center.
For more years than she can remember, Doyle has worked with people suffering with mental handicaps. She began as a social worker in her 20s in Milwaukee; today she volunteers at the center, conducting painting classes for those with memory issues, early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s. In her indefatigable way, she describes her students as “sweet, child-like, interesting people,” whom she enjoys being around. I got the impression from her that what she does, with the center’s other volunteers, is not a babysitter’s role nor a labor of love as much as a challenge to get the best out of her students.
She says her work centers around giving images to the students, and asking them to paint what they see. “As I review their work with them, I see their pride, and I realize that the program is a confidence-builder for them,” she says.
When I saw Susie at the Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club’s art exhibition last year, she stood proudly in front of several abstract, rather strange paintings that she proudly said were all painted by her students at the center. They weren’t Rembrandts, but they showed how people’s brains were functioning and interpreting the images they saw.
Susie Doyle reminds me that God’s angels are always with us—gently at our shoulders—protecting, leading and guiding each of us along life’s journey. Along with all volunteers, Susie is an angel in her steadfast devotion to Alzheimer’s patients. For countless years at the Green Center she has been at the side of her students, past and present, offering support and building confidence. Like any angel would, she says, “I love doing this. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Celebrate the angels in your life this blessed holiday season, and have a happy and healthy new year.