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Care for the Caregiver

Caring Companion Brightens Day for Older Neighbor and Family

Kathryn and Kurt Renick share a love story that is unlike any other – one that has persisted beyond borders, time, and, most recently, memory.

They met 17 years ago through a chance interaction over the Internet. Kathryn was renting out her charming lakeside cottage in Nova Scotia, Canada; Kurt was planning a trip with his daughter and son-in-law to celebrate their 5th wedding anniversary. A conversation about rental plans soon developed into one more casual, and after several emails back and forth, the two found that they shared a lot in common. Both loved to travel and cook, were widowers, and had one child – each of which had lost their parent at the age of 15.

They were looking forward to meeting one another in person, but as fate would have it, Kurt’s family trip would never come to fruition. The day of their anticipated flight to Nova Scotia, the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred, and all international flights were grounded.

However, in the wake of these events, their conversation continued – first by email and then through phone calls. “It was a strange and shocking time. People were having these very deep conversations with one another, with strangers,” Kathryn recalls.

Through their experiences in shared tragedies grew an even deeper friendship, and the two eventually did meet – first in Nova Scotia then again in Kurt’s hometown of St. Louis.

They explored new places together and bonded over delicious meals and their love of family. Kathryn shares that their relationship was certainly not part of her plan. Kurt is 18 years older than Kathryn, but their chemistry was and continues to be undeniable. Seven months after meeting, on June 1, 2002, they were married in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The happy newlyweds relocated to Loveland, Colorado to be closer to family and have lived a wonderful life together since. It’s a beautiful story, but unfortunately, not one that Kurt remembers at all.

Kurt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease six years ago, more than 10 years after he and Kathryn were married. The Alzheimer’s Association defines Alzheimer’s Disease as “the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life.”

Kurt’s Alzheimer’s demonstrates itself in various ways. He wanders, has obsessive compulsive tendencies, and has forgotten most things that have happened in the past, as well as the people who are in those memories. At times, he has even struggled to remember who Kathryn is.

Caring for Kurt is a full-time, round-the-clock job, one that Kathryn takes on predominantly on her own. It is often exhausting and relentless, and caregivers support their loved ones in this type of scenario usually burn out quickly.

Thankfully, Kathryn heard about Volunteers of America Colorado’s Caring Companion Program at exactly the right moment.

The Caring Companion Programs has two ultimate goals: 1) to give a family caregiver a break and 2) provide socialization and friendship to a person being cared for. Participants in the program suffer from Dementia/Alzheimer’s, physical impairments, strokes, Parkinson’s and other debilitating ailments. Many of have no contact outside of the family members and medical professionals that take care of them.

Each family is paired with a volunteer through a process that aims to match people with similar interests. The volunteer visits the family for a few hours each week, usually on the same day, to connect with the person in need and give the family caregiver a much-needed break.

Kurt was matched with volunteer, Dave Gross, a little over one year ago. Dave, a former salesperson in the tech business, is retired and has been volunteering as a Caring Companion for almost three years. “I like coming to see these folks. I look forward to seeing Kurt every Thursday,” Dave shares. Kathryn adds that the “relationship has defied their expectations.”

Together, Kurt and Dave work out at the gym; walk Kurt and Kathryn’s dog, Annie, at the dog park; watch golf on television; and play pool. They have even had special outings to go on a picnic at Sculpture Park or catch a Rockies game together.

During this time, Kathryn can get out of the house and run errands, meet friends for lunch, and attend a support group consisting of a tight-knit group of women that are also experiencing life with a partner that has Alzheimer’s.

The few hours a week may seem insignificant to some, but Caregiver Support Program Manager, Diane Cohn, affirms that this time goes a long way for those who have the full-time responsibility of taking care for a loved one. “It’s amazing what a little amount of time means to someone who feels like they never get a break.”