By Carol Taber
Betty Johnson Frankow by all accounts was a woman of vitality and spunk.
She attended Wake Forest University in a time when women going to college was rare. She was active in the civic life of the Town of Wake Forest, so much so that she was chosen as one of the torch runners when the Olympic Torch passed through the town of Wake Forest in 1996 on its way to Atlanta for the Summer Games.
When Betty and her husband moved to Youngsville, she remained an active part of the community as a member of Youngsville Baptist Church and the Youngsville Woman’s Club.
Betty had a close and loving relationship with her only child Dexter “Dex” Horton. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007, Dex watched the mother he loved slip away long before her death. He remembers the first day she didn’t recognize him as her son. “We were in the car and a song came on the radio,” recalls Dex. “Mom turned to me and said, ‘Dex should play that song.’ I asked her gently who she thought she was talking to?”
Betty passed away on January 26th of this year.
After her diagnosis, David Frankow (Betty’s husband of 40 years) was able, with Dex’s help, to care for his beloved wife in their home. For a while Betty was able to continue working in a local preschool and keep doing the things she loved.
But slowly over time, she had to give up her preschool job and began to wander more. In an effort to keep his wife safe and comfortable in their home, David installed a latch at the top of the door so Betty could not get out of the house without his knowledge.
Ever the spunky woman he found her trying to use a broom handle to open the latch. In 2012, the men who loved her realized Betty had reached the point where she needed more care. The decision was made to move her to Litchford Falls Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. Once she got used to it, the ever social Betty loved being there.
Dex visited his mom every Sunday. He is an amateur photographer and decided to document his weekly visits to have a record of his last years with his mother.
He also started to post his pictures along with his observations on Sunday nights to Facebook. His pictures and commentary touched people’s hearts, especially those who were traveling a similar path with their own loved ones.
Help on the journey
People began to comment more and more. One of these visitors especially understood and was able to make sense of what he was feeling and thinking. “Who is this person?” thought Dex, “who understands what I am going through?”
“This person” turned out to be Gail Trauco of Front Porch Therapy. With her background as an oncology nurse, Gail had experience ministering to people who were grieving a loss. As a certified grief mediator and life coach she puts her experience to use helping individuals understand the process of loss and grief.
In one of those amazing but not uncommon turn of events social media reunited two old school friends. Dex graduated with the Wake Forest class of 1976 and Gail (nee) King with the class of 1975. So many people were touched by Dex’s insights and his honesty, Gail, a published author, suggested to Dex that they write a book together about his journey with his mom through Alzheimer’s.
Sitting in Ollie’s listening to them talk, it is obvious that Gail was helpful in giving Dex the insight and the words to explain what he was thinking and feeling as the mother he knew slipped further and further away.
In addition to the five stages of grief — denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying — Gail has identified two more stages: fear and forgetfulness. She has an excellent overview of all seven stages on her Front Porch Therapy website.
In their book, which has the working title of The Long Goodbye, Dex and Gail share Dex’s experiences of working through those stages, especially how fluid each stage can be. Dex would often move back and forth between them. As more as more baby boomers walk this path with aging parents and even aging spouses there is a need for caregivers to know they are not alone, that feelings of fear, anger or denial are normal.
That forgetfulness is not a betrayal of the memory of your loved one but a healthy part of the grieving process. Gail’s expertise as a grief mediator enables her to offer steps on engaging each stage in manner that will be constructive rather than harmful.
The Long Goodbye will also include practical considerations for people who find themselves or a loved one navigating the medical side of long term illnesses.
One step Gail suggested, for example, is to always get a second opinion from a doctor outside your network. For example if your doctor is affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill, get a second opinion from a doctor affiliated with Duke. She said you want a fresh pair of eyes looking over all your tests and data, not your doctor’s partner who uses the same metrics as your doctor.
Besides being an encouragement to others in a similar situation, Dex plans for this book to also be a tribute to his mom, to the wonderful woman she was and to a life that continues to be a blessing to the people who loved her.