Lessons in Dignity

“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”

Laura Hillenbrand

“Dad was one of the most selfless people with his family and with the community,” begins Louisa Jane Hartsell of Albemarle, N.C. “Through our business [Hartsell Funeral Homes], he helped so many people.” Upon graduating from the Citadel in 1962,  Jeff Hartsell joined the family business which had been started in 1860 by his great grandfather. Louisa Jane believes it was her father’s calling to help people and be a leader within the funeral industry. Preserving dignity is a basic tenet of funeral service, and thus has been passed down to each generation of their family.

Jeff was also known for having a funny, quirky sense of humor — one liners that always had a way to fit any situation with southern charm. “As far as a father goes, there wasn’t a thing that he wouldn’t do for me and my four siblings,” Louisa Jane shares.  Jeff and his wife Jane were married for 56 years — a relationship that flourished through humility, giving back to the community and a tireless work ethic. 

“My dad was such a powerful force, and just to see what this disease [Alzheimer’s] did to him through the years was heartbreaking,” shares Louisa Jane.

The Hartsell children initially noticed a change in their father’s actions, observing such things as making radical decisions, mimicking others when he was communicating and having moments of paranoia. According to Louisa Jane, it was difficult for them to know exactly what was happening as Jeff would insert those ‘one liners’. He could play off his atypical behavior very well. The look in Jeff’s eyes, however, held no mercy in disguising the truth. Louisa Jane notes that the photos captured of her father as the disease progressed were in fact worth a thousand bittersweet words. Her father was always a man of few words, but a sense of frustration echoed when he did speak. “I’ve seen some people who are aware that they are living with the disease, and dad did not,” says Louisa Jane. “Not only did he not know what was happening, but he did not want anyone else to know that either.”  

Jeff’s frustration coupled with his confusion became increasingly evident at work. Louisa Jane shares that there was a specific order he was accustomed to as Jeff was always directing a funeral (in his mind anyway). There was a particular instance when Louisa Jane was setting up for a fundraiser in Stanly County. Jeff was trying to direct everyone to set up the chairs as he always did in preparing for a funeral. He wasn’t able to understand that the event was not a funeral.   

Louisa Jane admits that the family was very much in a sense of denial while handling the initial stages of her dad’s journey, and experience that is not uncommon for families in the early stages of the disease. The Hartsells knew that Jeff had some form of dementia for about four years prior to receiving the official diagnosis. “My family is very strong willed and we are fighters,” asserts Louisa Jane. “My mom led that fight for my dad, and there wasn’t a thing we didn’t try.” The family embraced a proactive stance in Jeff’s care including brain games, brain healthy diet, dental care (removing mercury from his teeth), walking daily, and frequent visits with his neurologist and neurofeedback. Louisa Jane believes her family’s support and the regimen developed for their dad did help in extending his life for a few years. While Jeff did not understand why his family was asking him to take all these measures, his innate sense of strength and will to live enabled him to be amenable to most of what they asked.   “There’s not a thing we would have done differently,” recalls Louisa Jane. “We read every book available and visited different doctors.” 

Louisa Jane’s mom often sees her friends struggle with the denial of their spouses who are living with Alzheimer’s. Not only the frustration but the lack of understanding in how to handle the individual or ‘meeting them where they are’ mentally. Jane shares that one of the hardest things for her to do was not speak to Jeff in a derogatory manner — rather do not take away their dignity but give it back to them through patience and understanding. Louisa Jane knows that her dad was so fearful at times because he could not control what was happening to him.  He really wanted to communicate at times, and he was unable to.   

In May 2020 (as the pandemic began), Jeff’s agitation grew.  He knew there was a new sense of fearful energy surrounding him, but he did not understand why. He ventured out on his own which alarmed everyone in the neighborhood. They had air patrol searching for him around the lake they lived on. Jeff had broken into the home of Louisa Jane’s sister down the street from theirs. He thought she needed help and became aggressive in the process. At that point the family realized they could no longer safely provide everything that Jeff needed; therefore, they transitioned him to a memory care community that took wonderful care of him for the remainder of his life until his passing in February of 2022.  

Louisa Jane’s introduction to the Walk to End Alzheimer’s was more of a coping mechanism than anything else, she explains. “I knew I couldn’t help my dad, and I knew I couldn’t fix him, but I could certainly raise awareness and raise money.” Louisa Jane believes that the Walk was big for her family, and it was big for their company culture to come together and participate in it. 

The family was aware of the Alzheimer’s Association and used its website for information but developed a closer relationship during the last year of their father’s life when they realized they could ‘do something.’

Their Hartsell Funeral Homes Walk Team is looking forward to its second year of participating in Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Rowan-Cabarrus on October 29 at Atrium Health Ballpark in Kannapolis. In addition to the funds they are raising as a team, the company is also sponsoring the Walk for a second year. Friends, family, and even Louisa Jane’s dog, play an active role during the Walk. “I always enjoy dressing up in these crazy purple outfits and making it a positive experience for us.”  The Promise Garden Flowers and the meaning behind each of their colors is one of the favorite parts about Walk day for Louisa Jane. The children search the crowd to see who is holding what color flower. The sense of realizing everyone coming together is in a similar situation and the fact that no one is alone is invaluable. Louisa Jane shares that they experience firsthand how many people are affected every day through their business. 

It’s still very difficult for Louisa Jane to talk about her dad as there are constant reminders of him in her day to day environments. She feels like she never got to say a proper goodbye as the disease took hold of him.  But she, as well as her family, do find comfort in knowing that he’s proud of them — the fifth generation running the family business exactly in the manner he would have wanted things to be done — with dignity.

LIKE THE HARTSELL FAMILY, WE ALL HAVE A REASON TO FIGHT FOR A WORLD WITHOUT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. Join your local Walk to End Alzheimer’s today as an individual, team, or sponsor.

The Alzheimer’s Association hosts 17 walks across North Carolina. The Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Since 1989, the Alzheimer’s Association® mobilized millions of Americans in the Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk®; now the Alzheimer’s Association is continuing to lead the way with Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Together, we can end Alzheimer’s. Your health and safety are our top priorities. We will continue to closely monitor CDC, state and local guidelines to ensure Walk events adhere to the latest recommendations.

Alamance County9/24/2022
Guilford County10/15/2022
Henderson County9/24/2022
Iredell County9/24/22
Mount Airy09/10/2022
New Bern10/22/2022
Unifour (formerly Hickory)10/29/2022
Triangle (Raleigh-Durham)10/15/22
Moore County11/12/2022

Alzheimer’s isn’t stopping and neither are we.

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