Mom, caregiver son celebrate time together by going on adventures

John Kellen and his mom, Colleen, stopped for a photo at Grand Portage State Park, a destinations on one of their joyrides. John has taken Colleen to 56 parks. The two enjoy each other’s company, exploring new areas, and taking photos along the way. Photo by John Kellen

Joy as defined in the dictionary is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” The definition of joyride is “a ride taken for pleasure (as in a car or aircraft).” There is a more nefarious and informal understanding of joyrides as a fast and dangerous ride in a stolen vehicle. Let me assure you the story I’m about to share is definitely not the latter.

In my youth, I don’t recall regular joyriding other than “road trips” across the country for spring breaks, to Colorado skiing, or to the beaches of Florida and Mississippi for sunshine.  Although those trips were fun, the actual driving was less enjoyable and rather a grueling round-the-clock marathon push to get to our destination.

In contrast to road trips, with joyrides it is the journey as much as the destination that brings enjoyment. Recently that is exactly the type of experiences my mother, Colleen Kellen, and I are having.

A little background. In July of 2018 I took on the role of caregiver for my mother with no prior training.  Since then in addition to OJT (On the Job Training) I’ve been reading up on dementia and attending as many seminars as I can.  An estimated 25 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease or 6.4 percent of people 65 years old and over. These are staggering statistics and that number is growing as our population ages. As fate would have it, my mom is one in that number having been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) six years ago. Witnessing her progression to full blown Alzheimer’s has not been easy, yet it is her journey, and rather than focusing on the downside, we are pursuing a quality of life and living moment by moment.

After reading “The 36-Hour Day,” which is a great book written about caregiving and dementia, I took the authors advice of picking up a hobby that I’m passionate about as a method of “caring for the caregiver.”  I’ve taken up photography in earnest and last year joined the Little Crow Photography Club, where I’ve met interesting and talented people who’ve inspired me to improve my craft.

John took a picture of his mom, Colleen, enjoy the view at Mount Tom at Sibley State Park. Photo by John Kellen

While driving the backroads in search of artistic exposures, I’ve reconnected with Kandiyohi County, where I grew up.  Initially, I was out by myself while my mom was at adult day care. Time alone is another very important aspect of caring for myself and even though I had feelings of guilt leaving mom at adult day care, intellectually I knew it was good for both of us. For her to be social around other people was positive and it turns out she has latent artistic talents. For me hiking, biking and kayaking were not only good exercise and fresh air, these pursuits gave me a new-found appreciation of what was once my home, and now is home once more.

Part of me was happy to be alone and have a break from the stress and responsibility of 24-hour caregiving, yet part of me wanted to share the beauty and wonder I was experiencing with my mother.  After all, she and my father were the ones who introduced my siblings and I to the great outdoors in the first place.  They taught us to fully appreciate the beauty all around us.

That brings me back to joyrides.  It turns out my mom loves to go out for rides in the countryside. One day I asked her if she wanted to join me for a joyride. She immediately was game and was very animated about being out on an adventure.  Fast forward 10,000 miles and we are finding joy in joyrides all around the state.

What started out as local rides around the lakes near Willmar has expanded to visiting our birth places of Marshall and Madison and then on to exploring Minnesota State Parks.  Some of my earliest childhood memories are of time spent at Camden and Sibley State Parks. Revisiting these places has had a profound impact on my mother’s memory. Her face lights up and she’ll recall names of relatives and friends while sharing her experiences as a young girl.

That very definition of joy emanates from her in ways I hadn’t seen in years.  The feeling is contagious! I find myself lighting up seeing this woman so happy. So much of who I am I owe to her and my recently deceased father.  Life is short and death is certain.  Experiencing this time together is a gift to be relished.

Trumpeter swans near Savannah Portage State Park. Photo by John Kellen

“Can we go somewhere?”  It’s a question mom often asks now that she’s accustomed to our frequent joyrides.

“Why sure, Mutti, where would you like to go?”

“I don’t know- anywhere.”

“OK, let’s break out the map and decide where our next ‘Venture’ will be.”

I love to travel so I’m easily convinced to strike out on a journey full of surprises.

Early in June we joined the Minnesota State Parks and Trails Passport Club where they give you a passport with blank spaces and a map of all the 75 State Parks and Recreation Areas.  Who knew there were so many?  Since that fateful day we joined, we’ve been on a quest to see just how many of these parks we could see in one summer.

Starting with day trips close to home then expanding and experimenting with overnight trips (No, she’s not into camping much to my chagrin) we have crisscrossed the state’s backroads and seen so many amazing places.  The Minnesota State Park system is one of the best in the country. I’ve learned more about Minnesota history in the last five months than I have in the previous five decades.

This may all sound a little crazy dragging my 86-year-old mother over hill and dale, yet Colleen thoroughly enjoys our adventures, often remarking on how beautiful the trees and water are while spotting deer, wild turkey and swans in the pond.  Her mind is engaged, she’s reading road signs and looking at maps.  She’s getting fresh air and exercise.  She’s even hiking up hills and stairs with help from her “wingman” son.

A sunset at Monson Lake State Park, one of the 56 parks the Kellens have visited so far. Photo by John Kellen

The look on her face said it all.  Her smile, her bright eyes and curious demeanor are clear indicators that she is experiencing joy in its purest form. Mom may have a hard time expressing herself in complete sentences or choosing appropriate words yet she retains her sense of humor. Out of the blue she’ll crack a joke or come up with some eloquent quip that just floors me.

What exactly is going on in that extraordinary mind we will never know.  What I can say is that it appears as if she is experiencing joy on our joyrides. Documenting our adventures with photography allows those experiences to be relived and stories to be retold. In a sense it is a gift that keeps on giving.

It remains to be seen just how long we will be able to share these types of journeys. Thus far we have visited 56 parks and counting. I feel a real sense of urgency on multiple levels to create as many peak life experiences with Colleen as possible while she is physically able and as long as doing so brings her “feelings of great pleasure and happiness.”