Photo: Dan Summers with the painted purple and gold Jaguar. Source: http://www.whoisladyfriend.org/
Dan Summers has been married to his wife, Joan Summers, for over 60 years now. However, Joan has Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed when she was 61 years old, almost 17 years ago, and Dan has been her sole caregiver since the very beginning when the symptoms were mild and she was still able to care for herself to an extent.
After almost 2 decades of living with the disease, Joan has progressed into its advanced stages, where she relies completely on others in order to care for herself. Dan, at 81 years old has been taking his wedding vows to the next level, in what is a very literal interpretation of the phrase “in sickness and in health,” as he tirelessly cares for his wife every single day.
The experience has helped to show him one thing: despite our understanding of Alzheimer’s being better than ever, there is still a great degree of ignorance on the subject, especially in the general populace. This revelation has driven Dan to start the Lady Friend Alzheimer’s Support Fund, a charity effort directed towards Alzheimer’s caregivers, to provide respite and solace to the brave souls who sacrifice life and limb to caring for their loved ones afflicted with the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition characterized by a progressive cognitive degeneration alongside several behavioral disorders. In its early stages, the disease manifests as acute short-term memory loss where the afflicted may frequently forget what they were doing, while also becoming easily disoriented. These symptoms are brought about by the progressive death of the brain’s cells and, as the disease evolves and the damage extends, several areas of the brain may become atrophied, exacerbating the symptoms and permanently damaging the person’s faculties. After a diagnosis has been established, the patient will have 10 years, on average, of life expectancy. This is not because the disease directly causes the physical deterioration of the patient, but because of the behavioral issues it produces, which prompts him or her to commit self-harm either through voluntary actions such as persistent scratching of a specific area, or by accident, since these individuals are more likely to fall or to suffer injuries from being bedridden for extended periods of time, such as what happens in the final stages of the disease.
Alzheimer’s manifests mostly after those 65 years of age, though there have been records of formal diagnosis on patients just over 40 years old. Regardless, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and is also one of the most lethal, since the patient degenerates to the point of not being able to care for themselves in any way, and rely entirely on others to keep them alive, by feeding them, cleaning them, and looking after them to ensure that they don’t hurt themselves by accident.
Dan's homage to his wife
The disease is incurable and terminal, a fact that was very apparent to Dan when his wife received her diagnosis, and that went on to become the driving force for his tireless effort of looking after her all these years. However, after almost 20 years of service to his afflicted wife, Dan discovered another method in which he could pay homage to her, while also raising public awareness of the disease that had, in a way, robbed the couple of their golden years.
The method in question came in the form of an old 1968 Jaguar XKE that Dan had purchased back in ‘79, but had been out of commission for some time now. While sitting down and chatting with his children, Dan suddenly had an epiphany and announced that he would be painting the “Ol’ Jag” purple and gold. While the family was too stunned by the revelation to actually understand why their father wanted to do such a thing, they respected his resolve and even offered to assist him in the endeavor. Regardless, when after being asked why he needed to go through with the initiative, and Dan responded with a singular “I just need to do this,” his motivation became apparent; he wanted to raise awareness about the disease that afflicts his wife, and the old Jaguar was just the perfect tool for the purpose.
After years of simply caring for his wife, Dan finally felt that he was making a difference. By taking a car that had been sitting in the driveway for years, and painting it in a shiny coat of purple adorned with golden ornaments, and with several decals related to Alzheimer’s, Dan could spread the word about the disease, and finally take some action in supporting those that struggle with it on a daily basis. However, the car was just a means to an end, and after they were done sprucing it up, Dan set out to spread the word. The initiative was so well-received by onlookers that he then went on to find the Lady Friend Alzheimer’s Support Fund, an initiative aimed to improve the well-being of caregivers.
To this day, the fund has raised over $20,000, which is going towards the support of fellow Alzheimer’s caregivers, to improve their quality of life by offering them care packages, allowing them to enjoy a night out, or to partake in a fancy dinner, among others, with the objective of breaking the daily monotony and allowing them to obtain respite and solace from a life that is mostly dedicated to caring for their loved ones afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The fund obtains its name from a nickname a waitress once used to refer to Joan, Dan’s wife, while they were on vacation. Meanwhile, the car is painted purple since it is the international trademark color of Alzheimer’s, and the golden adornments represent the loss of the couple’s golden years to the disease. Since the disease is incurable, and Dan has realized that there is nothing else to do other than move on, he now dedicates the little free time he has from caring for Joan to spread the word about the disease and supporting other caregivers who might be having trouble.
Through this initiative, Dan hopes to increase awareness not only about a condition that a lot of people remain ignorant about, but to also uncover the realities that both families and caregivers also go through, so that people might understand how Alzheimer’s also affects them.
To learn more about Dan Summer's organization, please go to http://www.whoisladyfriend.org/