Reunion to Remember

A high school reunion is all about memories. Can – should? – a person living with advanced dementia attend?

That decision is specific to every situation, but for Evelyn Koppany a getaway with girlfriends brought back memories for her and created new ones for her family.

Evelyn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years ago. She and her husband John live at Southminster retirement community and see Dr. Edwards at the Memory & Movement Charlotte satellite clinic there. She’s lost much of her short-term memory and spends most of her time at home with family. Until October.

“I received a call from Evelyn’s high school best friend, who lives in San Francisco,” John recalls. “She tentatively asked whether I thought it might be possible for us to travel to New York City to celebrate their 70th high school reunion with a small group of close friends. Without hesitation, I said yes.”

And then he figured out the details. Over a long weekend in October, four “girls” aged 88 and 89, with caregivers and adult children in tow, travelled from San Francisco, Montreal, New Jersey and Charlotte to a New York City hotel. They hadn’t been together in nearly 30 years. John, Evelyn and their daughter Christine were the first to arrive.

“We’d arranged to meet Helen, one of the girls, at a restaurant for dinner. As we sat at our table and waited, I became nervous. The restaurant was dark, Evelyn was tired and disoriented, and I began to wonder whether this was a good idea after all. And then Helen and her son entered. They were 20 yards away, talking with the hostess when Evelyn spotted them. She began waving her hands, pointing and shouting, ‘Helen, we’re over here – look over here!’ They hugged and immediately began talking through joyful tears.”

The “girls” spent three days laughing, crying, poring over scrapbooks and reminiscing. Some days they packed their walkers into a Suburban and went out on the town, others they stayed in while their caregivers kept the room service flowing. “Evelyn surprised us all with her long-term memory. Her ability to socialize, be aware of her surroundings, participate in conversation...she never asked for a nap, never went to bed early, ate everything in sight…it’s as if she put her illness on hold for a few days and lived as her younger self. It’s impossible to know how the mind will react and we shouldn’t underestimate its capacity to remember vividly. It was an experience we’ll all remember.”

Evelyn and her three friends with classmates, 1952
Together in Buenos Aires, 1995
The girls, in New York City October, 2022

A Note from Dr. Edwards

This story reinforces a major theme in our care for patients and caregivers. We focus on what is working in the lives of patients, not what is lost. This emphasizes to all involved that joy and purpose are possible if we look in the right place.

Patients with dementia all lose short term memory. Long term memories are often spared. This offers a pathway to meaningful daily interactions.

Evelyn recognizing her friends from over fifty years ago is an example of just how strong those recollections can be.