Receiving a serious diagnosis of any kind can set your world reeling. Lynda Olander Converse, a native of northeastern Minnesota and a graduate of Crosby High School, has experienced the gyroscopic heart swings of her daughter’s traumatic brain injury, her son’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and her father’s diagnosis and subsequent life with Alzheimer’s disease. From journal entries made during her father’s decline from the disease, Lynda, who lives with husband Clint northeast of Browerville, has published her first book, His Name Was Merle, Our Journey Through Alzheimer’s Disease.
In navigating the waters of medical concerns, along with her mother, Audrey Olander, and her siblings, Lynda found that learning about her father’s condition, maintaining a sense of humor, remembering the good times, faith and journaling all worked to keep her personal boat afloat.
Merle Olander was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. He knew he was having trouble remembering things. His family noticed, too, but ignored his difficulties for some time since Audrey was so good at filling the gaps of memory. “Your mother is my memory,” Lynda remembers him telling her.
Yet as time progressed his difficulties could no longer be denied. “My dad’s grandmother, three aunts and two cousins on dad’s side of the family all had Alzheimer’s,” explained Lynda. Though not considered a hereditary disease, there seems to be some genetic predisposition to it.
When a visit to the doctor and cognitive tests determined Merle’s condition was “a moderate stage of dementia, Alzheimer’s specific,” he couldn’t grasp the diagnosis. As his condition worsened and Audrey and Lynda took over his healthcare decisions as well as handling the big issue of no longer driving the car, Merle’s world got smaller. Eventually he was admitted to the Staples Lakewood Reflections unit for stabilization of behavioral issues.
“During his time at Reflections, we watched dad go through many stages. He was childish, agitated, loving and understanding that people were trying to help his memory. At other times he was confused and wanting to go home. It was challenging,” explains Lynda in Chapter 3, The Realization that Alzheimer’s is Here.
In late 2009, Merle suffered a stroke. He passed away on January 19, 2010. During the last years and months of his life, Lynda watched as the man who had nurtured and protected her, the man who was strong, honest, and hardworking, a good provider and family man, lost himself. She remembers him saying, prior to his diagnosis and at the time of another family member’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, “Who are you if you don’t have your memories?” That question stayed with her. As her father lost his memories, Lynda’s memories of the dad she had known for so many years came to the forefront. She jotted those memories down in her journal, along with the day-to-day developments.
“Mom wondered how it would be for the grandchildren who would remember grandpa only like this,” remembers Lynda.
That was when Clint, whom she describes as having a good sense about things, said, “I think you’re writing a book that could be helpful to other people on the same journey.”
Lynda kept writing for another year and a half. In 2011, after her dad was gone and her mother had settled into a new routine, Lynda and Clint went on vacation. Reflecting on what Clint had said about a book worthy of publishing existing within her journal, Lynda decided to reassemble her writing into a manuscript that might be helpful to other people. She began an Internet search for a publisher. When she learned that a small West Coast publisher, RootSky Books, had published Republican congressional candidate Lee Byberg’s book Builders of Our Land, she decided to learn more about the publishing company. Ultimately, Lynda connected with RootSky, and they agreed to edit and publish her book, as well as create a website and blog for her.
“I had organized the book to start with dad being sick, then memories, then journal entries, but my editor wanted it to be chronological,” said Lynda. They settled on beginning with verbal snapshots of 2009, as Merle struggled with memory difficulties, then stories of Merle’s earlier life followed by several chapters of dealing with Alzheimer’s.
The title and cover design were other options that needed to be considered.
“The original title was His Name Was Merle, He Was My Dad,” said Lynda. “But my editor thought that would have appeal to our family but not a broader audience so we changed it.”
They also considered three options for the cover design: a photo when Merle was young and in the United States Army, a photo of him as an older man and already affected by Alzheimer’s, and a painting Lynda had done of a landscape with a tall tree and two eagles perched on the branches (the story of the connection between the eagles and Lynda’s family is in Chapter 6).
As an oil painter, Lynda had struggled to get the landscape as she wanted it and never felt quite satisfied with it. She had owned a bookstore in Brainerd in the early 1990s and had seen thousands of book covers on her shelves. She had also worked in fundraising for Camp Confidence and as a consultant for sustainable farming before retiring to devote her time to her family’s needs. Throughout her work life, she tried hard to do things the right way, a trait her father had instilled in his children and a philosophy he had lived by. Getting the book cover right was important.
“Mom and I liked the photo of dad in his senior years. Everyone liked the young photo; a young man in uniform with his life ahead of him.” What no one could see was the lurking susceptibility to Alzheimer’s, yet the book cover with a photo of Merle as a young man would achieve the goal of introducing folks to the man Merle was for most of his life, not the final memories of a man afflicted with dementia.
With the final edits done and the cover design chosen, the book was published and released in February of this year. Lynda has been out and about doing book signings, using radio discussions and press releases to draw attention to the issues of Alzheimer’s research and the importance of remembering the entire lives of those you love and hearing the stories of the experiences of other families affected by the diagnosis of dementia. Her greatest surprises have been the people who have shared stories of how her father touched other people’s lives.
“He was special,” she said.
Find Lynda’s book at: Good Book and Gifts, Little Falls; Bethany Book and Gifts, Brainerd; Gifts Galore, Crosby; Heartland Cafe, Crosby; and The Shante, Pillager. The book is also available at Amazon.com through Lynda’s website: www.lyndaconverse.com. For those who don’t have access to the stores or the internet, prepaid orders can be placed by calling 320-594-2456.
For information and dementia support, contact the Brainerd area’s Lakes Area Memory Awareness Advocates (LAMAA) through Facebook and the Alzheimer’s Foundation at http://alzfdn.org.