When Patti Hagadorn attends Mass at St. Therese Catholic Church, Fort Wayne, she spends the hour not with her family or the other congregants, but seated alone in the confessional booth. Sometimes her friend, Cindy Mowan, will stay with her for a few minutes until Hagadorn’s husband, Jim, and daughter, Amy, come for her after the service, and take her to the altar to receive the Eucharist.
For many years Patti and Daisy, her beloved toy apricot poodle, would go for solitary walks through their friendly South Wayne neighborhood. Today her walks with Daisy continue, but her stroll has become plus-one: Someone must be with her, lest she get lost, and because she has been deemed a flight risk. In the evenings she heads upstairs to the dark sanctuary of her bedroom, where she stays until morning.
This, as of five years ago, is the new normal of Patti Hagadorn’s life.
On Sept. 17, 1974, her carefree days were forever changed by a horrific drunken driver automobile crash that put her into a coma. Upon regaining consciousness, she began the tedious journey of returning to a semblance of her former health, which now included unwelcome side effects such as epileptic petit mal and grand mal seizures.
Then, five years ago Patti, now 61, went through severe, repeated periods of forgetfulness. Her doctor recommended a specialist, who performed exhaustive tests in search of a final answer.
The stunning diagnosis sent the family reeling — early-onset dementia. Since then there have been many changes that have affected the whole family, including Jim, Amy and recently married older daughter Jamie Covey. One major adjustment was Jim leaving his 42-year factory and softball umpiring jobs to take care of Patti full time.
“Each day Patti wakes up hoping to remember everybody and what is going on,” said Jim, adding that they will celebrate 39 years of marriage this year.
So far Patti’s decline has been slow, but exacerbated by an energy-draining Sundowner’s Syndrome; which means she needs to get to her darkened bedroom quickly or suffer a severe bout of confusion and agitation that comes with the exodus of daylight. She must stay there until sunrise.
Because she can no longer tolerate crowds and loud organ music, during Mass Patti withdraws to the solitude of the confessional and follows the service with her hymnal and rosary. Her many friends have taken it upon themselves to be protective of her, whether in church or outside.
Ever an optimist, Patti has found slivers of sunshine within the impending fog of dementia.
“I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene,” she said, with parents who were strict about attending Sunday services. “When I was 16, I went with a friend to her Catholic church on a Saturday evening and I immediately knew that I wanted to convert. I spent each Saturday with my friend so I could secretly go to Mass with her on Saturdays and to my own church on Sundays. When I got married, I told Jim, a devout Baptist, that I wanted to convert to Catholicism, and he said jokingly that he’d divorce me if I did. Long story short, we then ended up at Trinity Church of the Nazarene for 22 years; but my heart still ached to be Catholic.
“When I was diagnosed with dementia, I said again very firmly, ‘I want to convert!’ To my surprise, Jim finally agreed and let me begin RCIA classes at St. Therese. He would drop me off there and go to Trinity and pick me up after his own service.
“I was so happy. Becoming Catholic was the best decision I ever made in my entire life.”
Patti was a delight to have in class, according to Cheryl Mowan, an RCIA catechist who had the gregarious woman as a student.
“She was so ecstatic about becoming Catholic that she wanted the same joy for Jim and Amy,” Cheryl remembered. “Jim was adamant about not being interested; he was, after all, an elder in his own church. A few months after Patti was received into the Church, Amy followed in her mother’s footsteps. Patti kept saying, ‘Jim will become Catholic, too, just wait.’ Sure enough, a year later Jim was in RCIA and we all rejoiced when he made his Profession of Faith!”
Jeanne Nes, treasurer of a ministry called the Blessing Bees Ministry that Patti started at St. Therese, was equally enthusiastic about the trio.
“Jim is the most supportive, loving husband. He enables Patti to be who God wants her to be, and I believe that his ability to do so is God giving him patience and love,” said Nes. “I met Patti as she began her RCIA journey, and knew I had just found a most delightful woman. Her profound faith in God stands over and above her childlike trust, as she would do anything for anybody, whether she and Jim are financially able or not. She always says, ‘God will provide.’ She has a huge prayer board in her kitchen where she lists names given to her so she can storm the heavens with those requests. And her daughter Amy is an absolute joy, too.”
Another way in which Patti has been meeting the demands of dementia since 2013 is by courageously journaling a soul-baring newspaper column for the News Sentinel about the ongoing changes in her life and the things she misses most, like walking Daisy alone. Her columns alternate between poignancy and gentle humor. She sheepishly admits, for example, that every single day, for years, she has gone to McDonald’s restaurant to feed her addiction to its vanilla ice cream cones.
Each day brings new struggles for the Hagadorns, who are still trying to be valiant in their coping, Jim admitted.
“I still cannot comprehend what is happening to Patti, but the blessing in all of this has brought each of us much closer to God, whom we rely on more and more.”
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