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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Local sculptor turns to print to help come to grips with her personal experience with Alzheimer's

By Cindy Mullet

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

“The book was being written the whole time it covers, only I didn’t know it was going to be a book,” local sculptor and now author, Pamela Harr, explained as she talked about her recently published book, “Deeper Than Memory: Our Struggle with Alzheimer’s.”

When Harr’s husband, local sculptor Harvey Rattey, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Harr said she needed a support group to help her through the difficult time ahead, so she reached out to people she knew, a couple doctors, some nurses, college friends, women from her church and family members. Meeting as a group wasn’t possible, so she started writing to them, sometimes just to one person, sometimes to the entire group.

The beauty of email was that she could communicate what was happening and get quick responses, she explained. When she struggled, the group rallied around her. When she faced challenges, they suggested solutions. When she needed Alzheimer’s locks or a devise to put on the stove that would automatically turn it off in 20 minutes, they pointed her to suppliers.

Several women in the group also had spouses with Alzheimer’s. One group member had worked on an Alzheimer’s ward for 20 years. They could understand what she was experiencing as she cared for Rattey while also trying to run their business, Bridger Bronze.

“I learned so many things to make it easier,” she said, noting that while she always tried to see on the bright side of things and cherish the good moments, there were also depressing and even scary times.

She installed an Alzheimer’s lock on one door and put a bell on the front door. Her dog was trained to bark and come get her if the front door opened while she was busy in the office. Even with those precautions, Rattey managed to wander off a few times, she said.

One time he walked out their lane to the Sidney highway, crossed the road and was almost to the river before someone saw him and picked him up. He told them someone was trying to kill him and he needed to get to town, but the man who picked him up realized something was wrong and brought him home, she said.

These experiences, and many others, she communicated to her support group through email. After Rattey’s death, one of her friends compiled the emails she had received, put them together with photos of sculptures she had purchased from Rattey and Harr and gave them to her. Looking at them, Harr thought, “This could be a book,” she said.

Harr had reached out to Rattey’s ex-wife Sondra Ashton and asked her to come to Glendive from her home in Mexico to help their daughter Deborah Robart who was recovering from knee replacement surgery. While she was here, Harr showed her the emails and photos her friend had put together and Ashton agreed they should be made into a book, Harr said.

With Ashton’s encouragement, Harr printed out every single email she could find and copied all her notes from doctor visits, etc. She ended up with an inch and a half thick pile of papers which she gave to Ashton to take back to Mexico and edit, she said.

In school, English had always been Harr’s downfall, but over the years she had read books on how to write, put out a newsletter for their business, written articles about their sculptures and was an avid letter writer. Writing had always been a way for her to express her feelings, she added.

The emails compiled for the book start in October 2014 when Rattey was in the early stages of Alzheimers and continue through his death in December 2015. There had been little hints before the formal diagnosis: memory lapses, forgetting names, losing things, but they had passed it off as something that happens to everyone, she said.

Rattey was always cheerful, quick to laugh at himself and constantly telling Harr he loved her. She was his anchor and she cared for him at home as long as she could before finally having him admitted to the Eastern Montana Veterans Home where she spent as much time with him as she could.

“I feel fortunate that he could go to the VA and right here in town,” she said.

In looking back at her experience caring for her husband, she advises others not to be afraid to call and seek out answers, not to be afraid to question policy. She hopes by taking readers on a day-to-day journey of her struggle to balance all the elements of her life while caring for Rattey, they will see beyond the tragedy of Alzheimer’s to the intense love and times of joy and unexpected humor they shared.

“I am aware that often my fears, my frustrations and my helplessness, my love, colored my observations and my perceptions,” she notes on the cover of her book. “I mean no offense to anyone. I appreciate the gentleness and dedication of the caregivers who worked with us. I appreciate the care and support of my friends.”

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