Joanne & Donald Gatz Story



In Joanne Gatz’s life, two contrasting traits come together—a sense for business and an appreciation of crafts. Before retirement, Joanne made good use of her ability to track detail and keep things in order in her career as an accountant. But she also enjoyed expressing herself artistically in woodworking and creating clay pieces. (A clay cross she made hangs on her door at Beacon Hill.)

As a resident in the Memory Care Community at Beacon Hill at Eastgate, these traits are still evident. Though she has experienced memory loss, she likes to be active and bring order and beauty to her setting—helping fold towels in the unit, for instance.

And she still actively expresses her love to those around her. “You hear stories of people who have gotten agitated as their dementia has progressed,” says her husband Don, “but Joanne is not an aggressive person at all. In her case, she’s gotten even more loving. And she was loving before she had dementia!”

Don and Joanne met at Valparaiso University while studying for finals. She was a freshman studying Business, and he was a sophomore studying Chemistry.

“Valpo had reading days before finals. They would open up the classrooms in different buildings so you could study there. Well, I went to the building that was next door to where I was living. One of Joanne’s friends, Barb, was also studying there. She saw me and went back and told Joanne, ‘You have to meet this guy; I think he’s the one for you.’ Well, the next evening she brought Joanne to study. ‘We’ll watch until Don takes a break and goes out to get a coke. When he goes out, we’ll follow and I’ll introduce you.’ She did, and I invited them both to go over to the Union. They both went, but Barb whispered to Joanne along the way, ‘I’m not going to stay.’ Well, that started the romance that’s continued. And Barb remains a friend of ours to this day.”

Don graduated in ’60 and Joanne in ’61. They were soon married, while he was working on his PhD in Meteorology at the University of Michigan. They started a family and both of their children were born in Ann Arbor. From there, they moved to Illinois where Joanne worked as an accountant and Don worked for the state, studying air quality and acid rain.

They both retired in 1999 (before the big “Y2K New Year”) and moved to Arcadia, Michigan, eventually splitting their time between Michigan and Arizona, traveling to visit friends and family along the way.

In 2014, Joanne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and by 2015, their daughter Laura was concerned that it was getting too difficult for her parents to live by themselves. As Don explains, “I was the only caregiver and it was getting more and more involved. I had to do a lot of things Joanne used to do that she couldn’t do anymore.”

With help from Laura, Don and Joanne chose to relocate to Beacon Hill at Eastgate. They moved into the Independent Living wing; but after a few months, it became clear that Joanne needed more support.

So, Joanne transferred to the Memory Care Community. Don continued to live in their Independent Living apartment, where he serves on the Resident Council. It is a comfort to him to know that Joanne is getting the support and extra care she needs close-by.

“The staff knows her and they are in tune with her needs,” says Don. “They know her particular likes and dislikes. Really, they do the same for every one of the residents in Memory Care.” Don is pleased that Joanne has activities and personal support that fit her abilities and needs, and fill in the gaps he can no longer fill.

“When Joanne was with me, she began sleeping much of the day. There wasn’t anything she was interested in doing,” Don recalls. “But now, here, she has things she can do. There’s a group devotion every morning with singing and conversation, and other group events like balloon volleyball, plus activities that help her use her motor skills and interact with others,” he explains. “They take her for pedicures, and hair care, too. I join her during the week. Laura has been wonderful through all this, and it’s great that she can visit her mom regularly.”

Asked to reflect on the changes in their lives these past couple of years, Don focuses on the present.

“I don’t dwell much on what used to be…what she used to be able to do. We said ‘for better or for worse.’ I take that seriously. She doesn’t have the same abilities she had when we married, but Joanne still recognizes me and recognizes our daughter. As soon as she sees me, she’ll come running with her arms out and often starting to cry. And she tells me she loves me over and over again. She tells our daughter that she loves her, too. It means a lot to us. It does us both good.”

“And the love certainly goes both ways,” he concludes. “It’s not only my responsibility—it’s my privilege.”

Love never fails.

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