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Marriage and memory: a love story

Retired Stanford professor chronicles his wife's life with dementia

In the 32 months that his wife lived in the "Memory Support" unit of the Palo Alto Vi retirement community, John Gurley visited her twice daily from his apartment in another section of the sprawling complex, calculating that he walked more than 1,200 miles back and forth to do so.

During those months Yvette Gurley -- who died in December at 92 -- lost her ability to walk. Her fingers began to curl into fists, so she was unable to feed herself. Her ability to speak was reduced to sounds that were, in large part, unintelligible.

Despite the bleak situation, Gurley, a retired Stanford University professor of economics, refused to accept that his wife's trajectory was inevitably downhill. Together with full-time caregiver Carmen Galindo, Gurley worked -- and occasionally succeeded -- in at least temporarily stalling or even slightly reversing her physical and mental decline.

In the final months of her life, said Gurley of his wife: "At least through my eyes, she was the most beautiful at that point that she'd ever been."

Gurley, 95, lovingly chronicles the couple's experience with dementia in a series of six short volumes, all of which he self-published last year and this year on Amazon. With titles like "Vignettes of Yvette at Vi" and "Bringing Back Yvette," he recounts his determination to connect with his stricken wife through music, colorful dress and art, persistent conversation and regular walks to Stanford Shopping Center.

"Probably the main thing we sought to do was to make her happy every day," he said in an interview.

"Now we didn't succeed in that -- she was ill a good part of the time, and you couldn't do much for many of those days. But we used our own talking with her about her past and all the things she had done; we used beauty in her dress and in her room decorations, and then we used variety in taking her over to the Stanford Shopping Center almost every day."

Though often not sure whether she still knew who he was, Gurley never tired of reminding his wife of 69 years about all they'd done together: their 1944 meeting at a Sacramento tennis club, marriage the following year, graduate studies at Stanford, teaching and research at Princeton University, research in Washington, D.C. and then their return to Stanford.

Reiterating their past together -- sometimes multiple times a day -- was "mainly meant to remind her of herself and try to keep fresh in her memory the main events in her life," Gurley said. "So much the better if they also reminded her that I'm her husband."

Although she typically smiled when she saw him, Gurley wasn't sure it meant that Yvette recognized him as her husband because "she smiles at many people. I may simply be a familiar face." However, he felt confident she really did know him when she would look at him and say, "Hi Dearie," a greeting she had used for decades.

By persistently peppering her with questions and comments and pretending to understand what she was saying -- even when he couldn't -- Gurley believes that he stimulated Yvette's attempts to respond, resulting, for a time, in some improvement in her articulation.

But he found it "profoundly disturbing" that his wife seemed to have some inkling of her plight and was often struggling, without dependable speech, to tell him about it.

"All I can do is try to help every day," he wrote.

Gurley and Galindo, who worked as many as 13 hours a day as Yvette's caregiver, labored to keep Yvette stylish, with attention to grooming, earrings to match her clothing, lipstick, trips to the hair salon and frequent shopping expeditions for new outfits.

"We'd get her new clothes, new scarves, new pants from Kate Spade, new blouses and very colorful socks, and Carmen would dress her in a way that things matched," Gurley said. "A lot of people at Stanford Shopping Center, especially the sanitation workers, knew Yvette very well, and they still ask about her."

On Sundays, the three would lunch in the café at Neiman Marcus.

"She liked to look very good," Galindo said. "People would say to her, 'You're so beautiful,' and she would respond to that."

Gurley and Galindo also used colors and music to try to keep Yvette engaged with her surroundings, redecorating her initially "drab" room in the Memory Support unit to include a red loveseat, a floral easy chair, bright pillows and bed coverings and framed prints by Jasper Johns, Georgia O'Keeffe and Andy Warhol.

As 40-year season ticketholders to the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony, the Gurleys continued to share their love of music during the months in Memory Support.

Galindo would prop up an iPad with an operatic performance for Yvette to watch while being spoon-fed a pureed meal. After offering her different musical selections, Gurley and Galindo found Yvette responded particularly well to Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons."

"When she was sick I fed her in the room, and when I put on 'The Four Seasons' she knew it was time for lunch," Galindo said.

Gurley came to believe that his own health, at least in part, depended on his conviction that he and Galindo were helping Yvette, noting that "all our days are spent to achieve that objective."

He counted each day his wife lived in the Memory Support unit -- 977 in all -- noting that he was there for every one of them but two, when he had a cold.

"It took a toll on me but, on the other hand, I looked forward every single day to going over there," he said. "It didn't seem to be a chore."

The years of jointly caring for Yvette caused him and Galindo to become like family to one another, said Gurley, who has no children. The two continue to stick together. "Carmen calls me 'Papa,' and I've adopted her as a granddaughter," he said. "I'm indebted to Carmen very deeply for all that she did for Yvette."

Chronicling his life with Yvette has helped him develop a new writing style, Gurley said. Upon retiring from Stanford in 1987 he resolved to leave academic-style writing behind and try other forms. He learned French -- the language of Yvette's family -- and researched and wrote extensively on Eleanor of Aquitaine and her descendents. He later tried humor writing.

With the Yvette series -- which he composed with one finger on his iPad -- Gurley said, "I found my new voice."

He placed stacks of each thin volume in the mailroom at the Vi for other residents pick up.

"I've been able to write in a way that gives me pleasure and also makes people cry," he said. "They've told me this over and over.

"I'm just thankful that I'm still able to continue on at this age."

Contributing Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

Comments

29 people like this
Posted by Neighbors
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 7, 2015 at 10:04 am

What an amazing love story. That' is the most beautiful 'ever after'.


5 people like this
Posted by Edy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 9, 2015 at 9:26 am

Emotionally satisfying-read it quietly


2 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2015 at 8:36 pm

It's nice to see the care and grooming of an elderly individual who needed assistance. Too often the elderly are dressed in dowdy old clothing and this gentleman kept his wife in the best possible circumstances, including also thinking of her "look" which I believe helped her to feel personhood though her memory was no longer fully working.This society does not prioritize the elderly - I am middle-aged but already experiencing the dismissiveness that comes with age.


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