Tag Archives: Eleanor

Benefits of Dementia

Jessica Dickinson Goodman and Eleanor Dickinson, Dickens Fair, San Francisco 18 Dec 2016

On this, my daughter Jessica‘s birthday, I want to honor and thank her for her creativity, love, and generous heart. It is such a pleasure that she and Matthew live here in San Jose, not only because I love and want to spend time with them but also because Jessica has made time each week for my mother Eleanor (her grandmother), to help her get all that she can out of life, despite her dementia and other health challenges.

In a recent conversation, Jessica told me she keeps a mental list of what is good about dementia. After a pause during which I reoriented my thinking about this degrading and frustrating disease, I remembered that in 2008 I made a similar list of some of the benefits of having a disabled child.   Here is Jessica’s list, plus some additions:

Benefits of Dementia

  1. Good Surprises: Jessica told me about man with dementia who would order socks or books or other needed items for postal delivery. By the time the packages arrived, he had forgotten he himself had ordered them. He was sure he had a loving friend sending him surprises that were just what he wanted.
  2. Making a Statement, Again: When my mother saw Jessica in a politically provocative tshirt, she was delighted. Later that afternoon, Eleanor noticed the shirt for the first time, and was delighted again.
  3. Keeping Contact: When my father Wade died in 2011 at the age of 85, Eleanor lost her greatest fan. They had been married for 59 years, fighting and arguing all the way. Eleanor’s dementia has softened that loss. Sometimes she speaks of Wade as if he is in the next room.

What would you add to this list of the benefits of dementia?

Dickinsons at the Dickens Fair, San Francisco 18 Dec 2016

Eleanor Dickinson, Christmas 2016

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Images Copyright 2016 by Katy Dickinson

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Ideas? Getting My Mother to Drink More

Coffee cups painted by Eleanor Dickinson 1995

About every six months, my 85-year-old mother Eleanor ends up in Urgent Care or the Emergency Room with extreme dehydration. On Tuesday night, she was again given two full liters of intravenous (IV) liquid. Dehydration is very dangerous and makes her dementia worse – it muddies her thinking and judgement and makes her act even more independent than usual. For the last four years, our family and caretakers have tried everything we can think of – including working our way through all of the ideas on web lists – to get her to take more fluids.  She just does not want to drink.

Early Tuesday afternoon I got a call from the MedTech at my mother’s senior residence asking for help. After breakfast, Eleanor had pushed her way into another resident’s apartment, sat on his toilet and refused to leave. By the time I got there, she had been sitting for an hour – calmly saying “no, no, no, no” to everyone. She did not seem to be in pain. My mother said she was conducting an artist’s protest and planned to write a paper about the power of saying “no”. Eleanor has been a fine artist and politically active all of her life.  She was a Professor of Art at California College of the Arts 1971-2001.  Years ago, writing a protest paper would have been a normal activity for her.

Something in her mind told her that what she was doing made sense. Several caretakers tried sweet talking her while the owner of the bathroom threatened to call the cops to get her out.  My husband John finally wrapped her in a towel, picked her up, and walked her to her own apartment while she protested loudly.  Then we drove my mother to Urgent Care.  As usual, it took over seven hours for her to get evaluated, tested, and rehydrated.  We got home just before midnight.

Eleanor’s primary caretaker said my mother was very tired the next day but that she was cooperative for the rest of the week – eating and drinking more than usual.  Intravenous fluids fix dehydration for a short while but are not a long-term solution. If you have experience in this area, new ideas are welcome!

Eleanor Dickinson 2016

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Every Day is a New Day

Eleanor Dickinson at St. Andrew's Snow Day, Dec 2016

Today I have a break from taking my 85-year-old mother Eleanor to doctors’ appointments. We saw the new Neurologist yesterday and see someone about her blood balance tomorrow. Her caretaker Ella and I go with her to provide context – what we see her doing and saying – since she does not remember. 15 months ago, we moved my mother from Independent Living to Assisted Living at the senior residence near our house in San Jose, California. This has been a difficult year of slow health and memory failures. There have been some successes (we finally sorted out my mother’s gastrointestinal problem so Eleanor smells better and has more control of her bowels), and some amusing incidents:

Eleanor took her cat Loki out of her apartment today to join a group activity in the common area. He was frightened and ran into the apartment of another resident who is scared of cats. Ella crawled under the bed to get him. Loki ran out through Eleanor’s legs. Eleanor fell hard on her butt and broke the other resident’s closet door. Eleanor and Loki are back in Eleanor’s apartment now. It sounds funny, I know. Ella had the Medtech give Eleanor some Tylenol since she is going to be sore. (from a 17 August 2016 email to my brothers)

She has good days and bad days. She loves driving around, seeing the trees and clouds and reading every road sign aloud. She loves family visits, especially from her grandchildren – of whom she is very proud.  Eleanor enjoyed watching kids play at the St. Andrew’s Snow Day last weekend.

We who love her do our best to keep Eleanor connected with the remarkable and creative person she was, before the dementia.  She has been politically active all of her life and is a passionate advocate for Hillary Clinton.  She was so excited to vote that for weeks she carried her Vote by Mail ballot with her everywhere.  She lost it.  I asked for a replacement ballot but it did not arrive by Election Day.  So, I took Eleanor to my polling place and helped her fill out a Provisional Ballot.  I hope her vote was counted.

In addition to Ella, my mother’s residence has a group of loving and dedicated caretakers available at all times. The hardest problem is that after decades as the Professor of Life Drawing at California College for the Arts, my mother loves to argue and has the habit of command. She orders people around and they often obey, even when what she wants to do makes no sense or is a very bad idea (like taking her jumpy cats out of the apartment).

When Ella is not there, we sometimes get urgent calls for backup from the staff.  A year ago, Eleanor decided she wanted to move back into her old apartment and conducted a one-woman-one-walker sit in at 10 pm outside in the cold in front of the door to her former building.  My husband and I came when the staff called.  We wheeled her back to her apartment and had a serious talk.  She did not remember any of this the next day.  Every day is a new day.

Eleanor and Katy Dickinson, Election Day, Nov 2016

Eleanor Dickinson and Family 2015
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Ella Bolli Van Gilder, Hull House Volunteer, Woodcarver

1911 Ella Bolli Van Gilder oil portrait

My Great Grandmother was Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1874-1958. Before her marriage to Walter Atkin Van Gilder (1870-1943), she worked at the famous Hull House in Chicago with Jane Addams (Co-founder of the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union).  Like Jane Addams, Ella Bolli was a suffragette (feminist) working for women’s rights.

Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, “a community of university women” whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working class people (many of them recent European immigrants) in the surrounding neighborhood. The “residents” (volunteers at Hull were given this title) held classes in literature, history, art, domestic activities (such as sewing), and many other subjects. Hull House also held concerts that were free to everyone, offered free lectures on current issues, and operated clubs for both children and adults. (from Wikipedia)

My mother, Eleanor Creekmore Dickinson, was very close to her Grandmother and called her “Gram”. Gram was formally trained as a woodcarver in Chicago and carved furniture during most of her life. My mother remembers helping her: sanding, waxing, and polishing wood endlessly as a young teen.

I have several of Gram’s pieces, along with mirrors and stained glass designed by her husband (created by the Dutch workers in his glass factory). When we sold my mother’s house in San Francisco in 2012, we had to clean out fifty years of stuff she and my father had collected.  Some of it went to my mother’s apartment, some to my brothers and me (see Distributing Family Stuff for how we decided who got what), and the rest into storage.

During the big 2012 move, we were surprised to find a previously-unknown carved chair by Gram shoved into a corner of the attic crawl space. We have all but two of the pieces. John and I are finally now discussing how best to restore it. Some of the carved furniture by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder:

unassembled Fumed Oak carved chair by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Fumed Oak carved chair by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Fumed Oak carved table by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Fumed Oak carved piano bench by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Cheval standing carved mirror fumed Oak by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder, glass by Walter Atkin Van Gilder

detail of Cheval standing carved mirror fumed Oak by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

1951 Ella Bolli Van Gilder

Additional information provided by my Aunt Louise Creekmore Senatore on 14 June 2016 – added here with her permission:

That was a great Blog on some of the history of your great grandmother – Ellen Rachel Bolli Van Gilder – aka Ella to her friends and Gram to her grand-children. I actually remember a fair amount about her as I was 14 when she passed away. Her birthday actually is 12/2/1874 according to mother and the cemetery records. While at Hull HouseJane Addams encouraged her to travel to the Philippines on missionary work. Fortunately she returned to Knoxville [Tennessee] to marry Dink – Walter Atkin Van Gilder. She told me that grand-dad said when he first laid eyes on her when they both were quite young, that he was going to marry her one day!

The pictures of the furniture that she carved that you have are just lovely. Too bad not to include the chair we have that she carved with the Esperandieu coat of arms or the large bench that she gave to Mark [Dickinson]. Just beautiful workmanship! She also painted in oils but we only have one of her paintings. Gram also sewed beautiful clothes – she was so artistic by nature and in thought as is seen in her poetry and her opinion pieces.

She loved animals too! Eleanor and Wade [Dickinson] were given a beautiful black Persian kitty as a wedding present in 1952, named Duchess. They not being able to take care of a kitty at the time, Gram said that she would take her and after that Duchess was always with Gram, on her bed, in her chair. She was a sweet, loving kitty who, unfortunately, was allergic to her own fur and sneezed a lot. Gram would recite poetry to me while she ironed clothes and would read stories to me to while away the time.

She loved gardening and was always at Faraway [in Knoxville] every Spring to weed and plant and to cut the gorgeous Jonquils. She and Mom would pile them in the car in baskets and take them around to give them to friends. I got to sit in the back of the car, surrounded by bushels of wonder smelling flowers! She tried also to keep a little garden going at Elkmont [Tennessee] just on either side of the front, stone steps. She planted many ferns and bulbs. They didn’t have much success, however, since they needed water and tending more often than we were there. She is the one who named the [Elkmont] cabin “Dear Lodge.”

Note: None of the items pictured are for sale. I do not provide pricing or sales advice for similar items. Please do not ask.
Images Copyright 1951-2016 by Katy Dickinson

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Moving Day for Mom


Yesterday was tough. About 12 of us (5 family members plus a great team of professional movers) spent 12 hours shifting my mother from her Independent Living apartment to a new Assisted Living apartment across the parking lot on the same campus. My kids took their Grandmother out for the day (to breakfast and church and to visit the Cantor Arts Center) while my brother, husband, and I moved her stuff. She did not want to move but her family and doctors all see that with progressive memory loss, my mother needs more help than we can provide with less-than-fulltime caregivers. We hired movers who took photos of everything and did their best to set up the new apartment in exactly the same arrangement as the old. Her cats were unhappy to be kept safe in carriers all day – and are probably still hiding under the bed.  We moved everything: furniture, kitchen, art, more art, art supplies, her big easel, electronics, and an entire deck-full of heavy plants and planters.  The point in reproducing the old place in the new was that she would not notice – and she didn’t.  Success meant that our day of sorting, heavy lifting and tricky decision-making went largely unrecognized.  Hooray?

A few years ago, I was touched when my younger brother sent me this poem about difficulties in taking care of our mother. My two brothers live much farther away, so I manage her day-to-day business, caretakers, and medical decisions. My brothers and I confer on resolving larger issues.  Sometimes it feels like having another child myself – but one who gets less mature as time passes.  No matter what, we love her as she is.

The Guardian
by Joseph Mills

I don’t think my brother realized all
the responsibilities involved in being
her guardian, not just the paperwork
but the trips to the dentist and Wal-Mart,
the making sure she has underwear,
money to buy Pepsis, the crying calls
because she has no shampoo even though
he has bought her several bottles recently.
We talk about how he might bring this up
with the staff, how best to delicately ask
if they’re using her shampoo on others
or maybe just allowing her too much.
“You only need a little, Mom,” he said,
“Not a handful.” “I don’t have any!”
she shouted before hanging up. Later
he finds a bottle stashed in her closet
and two more hidden in the bathroom
along with crackers, spoons, and socks.
Afraid someone might steal her things,
she hides them, but then not only forgets
where, but that she ever had them at all.

I tease my brother, “You always wanted
another kid.” He doesn’t laugh. She hated
her father, and, in this second childhood,
she resents the one who takes care of her.
When I call, she complains about how
my brother treats her and how she hasn’t
seen him in years. If I explain everything
he’s doing, she admires the way I stick up
for him. Doing nothing means I do nothing
wrong. This is love’s blindness and love’s
injustice. It’s why I expect to hear anger
or bitterness in my brother’s voice, and why
each time we talk, no matter how closely
I listen, I’m astonished to hear only love.

“The Guardian” by Joseph Mills, from Love and Other Collisions. © Press 53, 2010.





Images Copyright 2015 by Katy Dickinson

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Republican Elephant Killed in Accident (1956)


I grew up knowing about Dolly, the baby elephant my parents took care of during the August 1956 Republican National Convention. I was sad today to learn the end of her story. I have been looking through a family treasure box recently and came across a folder of newspaper clippings from 1956. Some I had seen before – of my parents dressed in Indian finery escorting Dolly, an eight month old elephant from the Louis Goebel Wild Animal Farm in Southern California. There were cheerful news stories from New York, Chicago, Pacific Palasades, my mother’s hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as from the San Francisco Bay Area. Dolly as the symbol of the Young Republicans, went to all of the convention social events and even greeted President Eisenhower (who was successfully re-elected several months later). She was usually pictured wearing her big “Elephant License 1” from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

It was a shock to come upon two final news stories about how Dolly was killed in a traffic accident when the truck taking her home from San Francisco overturned. She died near Watsonville, California, in need of a blood transfusion and far from any elephant who could give it to her.

Four years later, by the 1960 presidential election, my mother had become a Democrat, firmly opposed to my father’s continued support of the Republican party. 1960 was the first election I remember: my 3-year-old self was so delighted that my candidate, John F. Kennedy, won.  I wonder if Dolly’s death had anything to do with my mother’s shift in politics?

Wade Dickinson with elephant at Goebel Wild Animal Farm 1956







1956 Dolly elephant

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Family Treasure Box

Wade Dickinson 1964 Louis Goebel Wild Animal Farm with elephant

The family that purchased our San Francisco home three years ago is remodeling and found a big flat metal box in the attic. I am grateful that they were kind enough to ship it to me since it is stuffed with family documents and photographs. I have been sorting and scanning the contents, finding both treasures and surprises. There was a stack of small faded family photos of Swiss ancestors, dated 1863 to 1890 (I recognize a few names and faces). There were also photos of military bomb tests taken my father (Wade Dickinson) in the 1950s, and a picture of my father taking delivery of a baby elephant at the Louis Goebel Wild Animal Farm. He and my mother wrangled the elephant for the 1956 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. Also included were my mother’s diploma from the University of Tennessee (Knoxville 1952), my father’s diploma from West Point (USMA 1949) , plus a humorous 1951 diploma for “Doctor of Nuclear Phenomeknowledgy” from the researchers at the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology where my father studied Nuclear Engineering. There is even a flyer from my mother’s first art exhibit in San Francisco (1965?) and a photo of her modeling in the Junior League of San Francisco fashion show.  Unpacking treasure is interesting.

family treasure box 2015

Eleanor Dickinson Junior League Fashion Show San Francisco 1955 . Wade Dickinson USMA 1945

USAF military bomb test 1952?

Wade Dickinson certificate Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology 1951

1870 Washington DC . Grandma Lily in Geneve 1871

Photos Copyright 1951-2015 by Katy Dickinson


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