Cy & Edna Kissingfor webSenior Concern’s own Cy and Edna Johnson are featured in a Valentines Day article published in the Ventura County Star on Saturday, February 14, 2009. Click “More” below to read the entire article.

Cy Johnson escorted his wife of 62 years to a Valentine’s dance on Friday at Senior Concerns with no intention of inviting her onto the floor.

Yet staffers at the Thousand Oaks adult day program, where the couple are regulars, consider Cy a sweetheart of a guy.

“He always kisses her and tells her he loves her,” said Maureen Symonds, director of programs at Senior Concerns, which held the dance for a few dozen frail elderly clients.

Since 83-year-old Edna Johnson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years ago, Cy finds himself in the always complex and sometimes exhausting dance of spouse-turned-caregiver.

An 85-year-old retired Air Force officer, he has joined the ranks of the almost 10 million Americans caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s.

Edna speaks little these days, but Cy hangs on her every word. Just last week, she said of her husband: “I do not know his name.”

“That is six whole words,” said Cy, elated. “That’s the most she’s said in months.

“I say ‘I love you’ 100 times a day,” he declared in his Georgia accent.

In a small voice, with her lips frozen, Edna replies “I love you, too.”

“Passion lasts for the first four years,” said Lisa Hayden, a specialist in the psychology of caregivers.

“What keeps people together is shared experiences and dependability,” added Hayden, who is the study director at the Veterans Administration’s West Los Angeles Healthcare Center.

For the first four years after Edna’s diagnosis, the Johnsons kept up a busy social and travel schedule. But in January of last year, she broke her hip while in the hospital. Since then she has been in a wheelchair and her dementia has worsened, Cy said.

In the cockpit of World War II-era bombers, Cy learned how to navigate by the moon and Jupiter. Now he is navigating the highs and lows of being a caregiver. While taking on more tasks, such as dressing, bathing and changing her, he is losing her companionship.

After she insisted he was not her husband, Cy tacked up their marriage license on a bulletin board above the hospital-style bed where she sleeps.

As he gazes at a ’50s-era portrait of Edna, a “wow” comes out the back of his throat.

Their meeting, the way Cy tells it, is like a dialogue from a 1940s romantic comedy. Edna Pearl Hill walked into the Officers Club at Rattlesnake Bomber Base in Pyote, Texas, west of Midland-Odessa. The base librarian, she was on the arm of a strapping young captain.

Cy, then a lieutenant, told his buddy that someday she would come in here without that captain, and he would ask her out.

When that happened, Cy wasted no time approaching her.

“I asked her if she had a book on how to ask a librarian out on a date.”

“No. But I’ll put one on order,” Edna replied in her Texas drawl,

They married on March 8, 1946, and have three children. They traveled to 30 countries. They settled in Thousand Oaks in 1964, after Cy left the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel.

Their living room is lined with Edna’s paintings of the scenes and people of Asia. Above the fireplace is a portrait of a geisha and samurai — the last picture she ever painted.

Just recently he removed the art supplies from the shelves in her bedroom. They had collected dust — something Cy notices now that he is in charge of the housework.

On a recent Thursday, Edna was in their den, working on wooden puzzles with her caregiver Yolanda Baker.

Baker is one of three godsends, according to Cy. The others are Meals on Wheels and Senior Concerns.

Studies show that 65 percent of caregivers die before the person they are caring for passes away. Symonds, of Senior Concerns, said caregivers try to take on too much and hit the wall.

Respite programs like the adult day center give caregivers a chance to pay the bills, shop and socialize while their spouses are looked after, she noted.

It’s also a place where caregivers can come to realize they are not alone.

Bud Wandrey’s wife, Penny Deakin, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001, after they had been married 32 years.

“I lost my friend and now I’ve got a little girl I love,” said the 73-year-old retired aerospace engineer, who settled Deakin in the activities room before attending his support group meeting.

For the party, Wandrey dressed Deakin in a red jumpsuit, red sneakers, Valentine socks and topped off the ensemble with a red-spangled baseball cap.

“The other day I said ‘I love you’ and she winked at me,” Wandrey said.

Young love may demand great gestures; old love may well rest in the details. And on the morning of the Valentine’s event, Cy had an emergency. Their adult daughter had just been taken to the hospital after a seizure.

While paramedics tended to her, Cy dressed Edna, helped her in and out of her wheelchair and dropped her off for day care at Senior Concerns.

Before he wheeled her into the dance, he pulled two headbands out of a paper bag. He asked a staff member to pick the one that best matched Edna’s sweater.

In the Christmas letter of 2008, he wrote: “No trips to visit friends or relatives, no social events. As boring as that sounds I can’t imagine my life without Edna’s darling expressions.”

Even though she may not know her husband’s name, she probably senses he is an important part of her life, Hayden said. Studies show Alzheimer’s patients react physically to a loved one’s presence. Their heart rate may increase and their breathing becomes faster.

Hayden puts it this way: “The love endures, even if all the details don’t.”

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