Service helps veterans with dementia feel connected
By Dianna Cahn | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 25, 2014
VIRGINIA BEACH (MCT) — The door to the brick home with a manicured lawn opens before Lisa DeMascio is even out of her Town and Country van. Mel Sautter comes bounding out of the house onto the front porch with surprising speed on his four-legged cane.
Mel grins at DeMascio. He reaches down to pluck a flower and hands it to her as she climbs the steps. The two embrace.
“I’ve missed you, Mel,” she says.
The decorated Vietnam War veteran was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps, retiring after three decades as a colonel. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Bronze Star for valor, got the girl, raised three children.
But now, Mel has trouble remembering. His mind goes blank, and without outside stimulation, his wife, Jane – the love of his life – can’t prevent him most days from just going back to bed.
DeMascio can. She comes onto the porch and chitchats. He’s especially eager to see her after her weeklong vacation. The 81-year-old is down the stairs and in the van before DeMascio is done conversing.
“He sits there and waits and watches till she comes,” Jane Sautter says. “I would do more, but I can’t afford it.”
DeMascio doesn’t charge a fortune for her services, taking veterans such as Mel out on frequent field trips. She charges enough to cover expenses: the van; her commercial license and insurance; her time. She believes that her small business fills a vital niche, helping veterans with dementia feel alive and connected.
And while veterans receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, dementia is hard to categorize, and those advocating on behalf of patients often can’t get clear answers about benefits to cover nonmedical services such as those DeMascio provides.
Family members seeking benefits often get different information from different caseworkers.
It’s not straightforward, like medication or surgery. What DeMascio does helps hearts and minds.
“We are looking for love in all the wrong places,” she says. “We are looking in the doctor’s office. We can’t get cured. This is not medical.”
As DeMascio and Mel make their way to the van, Jane stands on the porch and waves.
She was just 15 years old when she answered the door at a neighbor’s house 59 years ago and saw Mel, 22, standing there.
“I tell the kids, the clouds parted,” her voice catches as her eyes grow large with tears, “and the sun shone down and the angels sang.”
He waited for her, even after he joined the Marines. She left college to go with him to Japan, waiting 30 years to earn her degree in interior design. They had a great life.
But tears are always close to the surface now and her heart always a little bit broken.
W.D. Power walks out into the lobby of his assisted living facility wearing a T-shirt bearing the preamble of the U.S. Constitution and the words “America Home of the Brave.”
“Hiya, handsome,” DeMascio says. He gives her a big hug.
A Navy SEAL for nearly four decades, W.D. spent his career parachuting out of airplanes. He retired as a master chief; the military is ingrained in him.
Tattoos run up his arms and legs. At 74, he still stands tall and carries himself like a younger man. When he spends any time sitting in a chair, he does leg lifts.
A shadow box outside his room shows pictures of him as a family man and in uniform – decorated, proud. A poem demands that people see him for the man – and the warrior – he was.
A longtime military wife, DeMascio started her service, called Out and About, three years ago, after a decade of volunteering at hospice and nursing facilities where elderly veterans withered.
She saw a need for them to get out and connect with the world. But those services typically weren’t offered, she says.
Families are often at a loss trying to care for loved ones no longer able to care for themselves. And the mostly female staff at nursing homes – particularly those for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia – don’t necessarily understand the strong military culture that permanently defines some of their patients.
By taking them out for three to four hours at a time, DeMascio finds her clients are improving. They sleep better; two no longer take anti-depressants. And one couple who had moved into two separate assisted living apartments is about to return to a single unit.
“I just saw a need,” DeMascio says. “Being in these secured places, thinking, ‘Oh Lord, these people are just sitting here every day. Every day with nothing to do.’?”
The drive to the Military Aviation Museum in Pungo takes the group past lush green farmland.
W.D. watches for brick houses. Mel listens for aircraft, hoots at a vintage car and teases DeMascio about her driving.
“You are a good driver,” he tells her.
“For a girl,” she says, her voice dripping with irony.
“I didn’t say that,” he says, waiting a beat. “I need a ride home.”
She reaches back and takes W.D.’s hand. “We missed each other,” she tells him.
Then she turns her attention to the music and reminds Mel of some of their favorite songs.
“?‘Light of Mine,’?” she says.
“Oh, yeah,” he says with a gleeful laugh. “Shine, shine, shine.”
DeMascio talks about the names of houses along the way, how beautiful the drive is.
“She’s got us out and about,” W.D. says.
DeMascio charges between $60 and $75 an outing but sometimes, clients don’t pay. As long as her expenses are covered, DeMascio doesn’t force the issue.
She believes the government should be footing her clients’ bills. When she’s not visiting sick veterans or helping their families navigate crises, she spends her time pressing the VA for answers on benefits. She gives speeches to community and service organizations to drum up awareness about dementia and alternative treatments, using humor to deflect some of the heartbreak wrought by the disease.
She’s a self-appointed and most welcome advocate for overwhelmed families.
When asked how she manages not to get emotionally attached, she laughs.
“I am so emotionally attached,” she says. “You adopt these families. They adopt me.”
Sue Kriebel meets them at the museum parking lot. She met DeMascio through a mutual friend and volunteers her time helping with the outings.
The four stop to watch a two-seater World War II training plane that is about to take off.
W.D. says he should have brought his parachute. He did 3,000 jumps in a single month, he says. That’s the way it is in his memory.
DeMascio doesn’t challenge him.
“I had one guy who insisted Mickey Mantle was his brother, and the family would argue with him. I said: ‘Why?’ I’d rather be nice than right.”
Inside they look at airplanes and joke about who would sit where on a WWII-era military motorcycle with two seats and a two-passenger cart.
Mel’s hip is bothering him, so they sit at a table and have a snack.
W.D. was the last of DeMascio’s group to wear shoes with laces, she says. When he finally switched to Velcro, it took some adjustment.
They were on a field trip, watching an eight-minute movie, and kept hearing rip, rip, rip.
“He’s like, ‘These damn shoes,’?” DeMascio recalls. “People don’t get it. This was a man who packed his own chute for years. And now …”
“Ugh,” she says, shaking her head.
They encourage Mel to walk for a few more minutes then pull up chairs on the second floor, overlooking the small runway outside. “Want to lay back and take a little nap?” DeMascio says to Mel.
“You are not going to leave me?” he asks.
“I am not going to leave you,” she says.
Then she points to something out the window, coaxing him to sit up and look outside again.
Dianna Cahn, 757-222-5846, firstname.lastname@example.org
©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.