No one person had more impact on Nancy Alexander than her father, Jim.
This Father’s Day — the fifth since his passing — the Canandaigua woman remains proud of his legacy and does her best to honor it each day, in big ways and in small.
Most recently, she has done so through a book she wrote about her dad and the journey they shared during the last 18 years of his life. Published last fall, it’s called “An Unlikely Gift: Finding Inspiration Caring for My Father with Dementia.”
Jim Alexander was a World War II veteran and father of two who worked as a radio technician, coached youth hockey for many years and also played hockey well into his 60s. His daughter describes him as a man of integrity who was selfless, adventurous and engaging.
“He was my rock, my guiding light,” she writes in her book.
After growing up on Long Island, Alexander received a bachelor’s degree in English/writing arts from SUNY Oswego, where she was captain of her collegiate hockey team. She worked in advertising and public relations, but ultimately decided to go back to school — at the University at Buffalo — to become a physical therapist as well as a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
When her father was first diagnosed with dementia, she grappled with a host of difficult emotions and shed many tears. It was a long, challenging road that involved having to eventually take away Jim’s car keys, watch as he struggled for the right words and listen as he asked the same questions several times.
Ultimately, however, her message is a positive one meant to inspire caregivers and help them “embrace the road they are on.”
In her introduction to “An Unlikely Gift,” she writes the following to those who find themselves among the millions of Americans caring for a loved one with dementia: “Perhaps it is something you didn’t sign up for. Or perhaps it’s what you were built for. Either way, your journey is unique, just like everyone else’s. You are precious. We are precious. We need help. Yes, even caregivers need caregivers. Our loved ones need help and so do we. We need you — we need each other. Sure, some might get paid for it. But that doesn’t take anything away from how much they give. We need and appreciate each other. Each of our journeys is one of love.”
Later in the book, she also shares some advice she received from a friend, who cared for a parent with memory loss as well: “I realized I had the power to create my day and his day. I could decide to fight the disease and my father. Or I could decide to embrace him, love him, point out the good for him. He looked at me to set the pace. When he lost the capacity to reason and judge for himself, he looked to me to set the tone. It was up to me and it is up to you.”
For example, Alexander recalls the times they shared at the M.M. Ewing Continuing Care Center in Canandaigua, where her dad spent the final six years of his life. She enjoyed sitting with him during his meal times and, when he was no longer able to do it for himself, feeding him.
“I was so grateful I still had my dad with me. I could still share my life with him. We could laugh together and tease the nurses together. Life is temporary. All the hard times are temporary. I learned to embrace what I had at that moment. I am so glad I did,” she writes.
Since her book was first published, Alexander has shared its message in programs throughout the region. During a program at Ferris Hills at West Lake in Canandaigua last month, she was able to present a book to one of the M.M. Ewing nurses she thanks in the book, Lisa Salotto, of Naples.
“I have to say it felt so good to honor Lisa in this way and present to her a book. Oh my, it warmed my heart. She is an angel,” said Alexander, who in the book also credits nurse Lauren Baker — a Macedon resident who has since transferred from M.M. Ewing to UR Medicine Thompson Hospital — with being a welcoming presence for her dad.
As the owner of Achieve More Physical Therapy PLLC and Aging Well Now, Alexander not only does book readings but offers classes at OASIS Rochester and the Canandaigua Family YMCA. In 2018, she held her 15th and final Pink Fly Classic Ladies Golf Tournament, having raised more than $100,000 for UR Medicine Thompson Health’s breast health programs. She has also partnered with fellow author Judy Shenouda to offer a new program, “Take Good Care of Yourself.”
All of this, she believes, is due in large part to her journey with her father.
“I have big dreams, and I have an enormous fuel tank to see them through. That fuel is the love I shared with my father,” she said. “To care for someone with dementia is tough. It was a tough lesson. But sometimes the toughest lessons are the greatest gifts.”
Visit agingwellnow.com for more information about Nancy Alexander and her book, “The Unlikely Gift.”