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Joan Deter
Photo by Christina Ryan Claypool for The Lima News/Our Generation’s Magazine
Joan Deter

An Alzheimer’s caregiver’s journey

Amy Writing Awards | Learning to love unconditionally. An award of outstanding merit winner

Christina Ryan Claypool won an award of outstanding merit and $1,000 in the 2013 Amy Writing Awards, which recognizes Bible-based articles that appear in secular publications. (Read a selection of this year’s winning articles, which will be posted online through Tuesday, May 13.) For more information about entering this year’s competition, please visit the Amy Writing Awards section of the WORLD website.

The following article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Our Generation’s Magazine from The Lima (Ohio) News.

Joan Deter is a reluctant expert on Alzheimer’s disease. Like five million other Americans who are currently afflicted, both of Joan’s parents battled this dreaded destroyer of all that a person is.

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Fifty-three-year-old Joan is a Bluffton resident who has spent most of her adult life being a stay-at-home mom. She is married to Bill Deter, her husband of 32 years who works for Advanced Drainage System. Bill is originally from the Liberty Benton area. The couple met about a year after high school through their involvement in Campus Life.

When she was young, Joan, “… always wanted to be a mom,” she said. Her dream came true in the form of raising five now-grown children, Leslie, 31, Jessica, 28, Andrea, 26, and twins, Matthew and Michael, 19. The petite blonde woman who is a native of rural Upper Sandusky “… was always babysitting, taking care of animals or kids,” she said explaining her natural gift of caretaking.

Joan’s first experience with Alzheimer’s came when her father was diagnosed with the disease when she was in her early 30s. Her dad initially exhibited signs of erratic behavior. Ultimately, he would be unable to recognize his loved ones.

In 1991, her 73-year-old father was placed in a nursing home where he died after about a month. Joan had asked the women in her prayer group to pray for her dad, “… if God wasn’t going to heal him, [that] He would take him home. I couldn’t’ bear it,” she said. Yet her mom visited her spouse of 44 years daily, and didn’t want to lose him despite the Alzheimer’s.

“We got really close after dad died,” said Joan referring to her mother, Janet Wagner. For the next decade, her mom adjusted to life as a widow, living alone on the family farm, and enjoying visits with Joan and her other nine siblings.

Then in 2004, Wagner had a surgery for appendicitis which resulted in a blood clot going to her heart. She coded three times. The family was instructed to say their goodbyes but Joan wasn’t ready to let her mother go. Her husband, Bill said, “I don’t think it’s her time, and that [they] should pray for her.” Her mother made a miraculous turn-around, and ended up transferring to a nursing home.

“Would anybody be willing to let her come lived with them and take care of her?” Joan’s twin brother, Jim Wagner asked his siblings. Joan was terrified that since her father had died rapidly after being placed in a nursing facility, her mom would too.

Joan prayed in earnest, realizing the physical limitations her mother had, but unaware of Alzheimer’s looming on the horizon. She said, she “felt like the Lord said to me, ‘Would you be willing to take your mom?’”

Joan agreed, asking for four conditions. First, that her family would agree, that her mother never experience any broken bones, that she could keep her at home until she died, and that her own health would remain strong.

On Mother’s Day 2005, Janet Wagner left the nursing home in Upper Sandusky, and became a vital part of her daughter’s family. Alzheimer’s “came on slowly and gradual,” said the long-term caregiver. “And as things got harder and harder each year, you think, ‘What have I gotten into?’”

Joan watched as her mother’s pleasant personality slowly disappeared. “I remember praying, ‘Lord, Help me let go of the mom I used to know. … [help me] accept this is how it is, and to find joy in just taking care of her,’” she said.

Her 50-something husband says almost reverently, “It was a blessing,” regarding caring for his mother-in-law for almost eight years.

His wife admits, “It slowed me down. It helped me learn patience like no other.” Even when her mother was cross, stayed up all night, or needed complete care, Joan assisted the woman who had given her birth by eventually changing her adult diapers as she sat in a wheelchair, unable to even to feed herself.

When asked how she did it, Joan simply says, “Prayer.” Besides, her supportive family, she is grateful that Hospice helped for almost two years. The day before Easter last March, Janet Wagner quietly breathed her last breath. There was the finality of death, but years earlier, her dutiful daughter had grieved the loss of the mother she had once known.

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