In "Get In The Boat", Darlene Fuchs shares the powerful and poignant story of her father Richard's experience as a caregiver to his wife Gail during her decline into dementia.

This memoir, based on the journals of Richard Sonnichsen, is a heart-wrenching yet inspiring exploration of the enduring power of love, faith, and resilience in the face of life's most difficult challenges.

Through Richard's journey, Darlene offers valuable insights into the joys and struggles of long-term relationships, the complexities of caring for a loved one with dementia, and the spiritual strength that can sustain us through the most trying of times.

With raw honesty, emotional depth, and a compassionate voice, this memoir is a testament to the enduring power of love and the strength of the human spirit.

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As a neurologist, I observe many patients and their families enduring the devastating effects of dementia. Darlene has captured the essence of the experience of the family members who have chosen to navigate the course of the complex illness with love and respect. Get in the Boat is a fascinating story of human resilience in the face of uncharted waters. I highly recommend it.
Daniele M. Anderson, M.D.American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

The book beautifully captures the essence of meeting people with dementia where they are in the present moment. It emphasizes the importance of genuine connection, understanding, and love throughout the journey. It reminds us that despite the difficulties, those living with dementia can still lead fulfilling lives as long as we are willing to get in the boat.

I highly recommend this heartfelt and enlightening book to anyone seeking inspirational dementia care. Its wisdom and practical advice will undoubtedly leaving a lasting impact on readers, urging us all to embrace the journey and love ones through every step of it. JUST GET IN THE BOAT!

Helen BrownThe Pointes Consulting, President
Positive Approach Care Trainer, Dementia MDS Coordinator

Read an excerpt

Chapter One
A New Normal
It is now 3:45p.m. Gail whispering about how bad I am. She just whispered, “I have to get out of here.”

I stood quietly at her bedside. The dim morning shadows played at her eyelashes and touched the gentle lines of her face. Her soft, whispered breaths counted out the rise and fall of her chest. I’d been standing there for some time and realized I was breathing in sync with her. This was my Gail—wife and mother to my children, my beautiful best friend, my queen. She was so peaceful and still, so like herself. I could almost pretend she was just as she ever was, that we were not really at Victory Centre but back in our family home, experiencing life just as we always had.

She opened her eyes, and the dream was gone.

“Who are you?” she asked, her voice groggy but clear. Sometimes it was most steady when her memory was least so. But I would take a few unscrambled words from her whenever they came.

“I’m your husband, Richard.” I smiled wide, hoping my cheerfulness might crack the shell.

“Oh…” came her answer, but her eyes glared suspiciously.

“Let’s get you up, Gail.” I took a breath and moved to place a gentle hand on her shoulder. She recoiled from my touch.

“I’m Gail!” she rebuked me.

“That’s right. You’re Gail, and I’m Richard, your husband. Remember?”

“Oh.” Eyes still glaring.

“Come on, Gail. It’s time for breakfast. Are you hungry?”

I reached below the blanket for her hand but was too slow. She yanked free, and a sneaker met the side of my head, stunning me for a moment. I stepped back and shook the fog clear, then took a deep breath, trying to regain composure. How difficult it must be to fall asleep confused, only to awaken and discover a stranger in your bedroom. The thought hurt me, for her as much as myself, a reminder of our present hardships.

I threw up my hands in mock surrender and gave a lighthearted smile. At least it wasn’t a knife; I lifted a quick prayer of gratitude. So far, those disturbing behaviors were left behind us at Hunt Club. Still, I reminded myself not to start Gail’s day within swinging range.

“Alright,” I said in my calmest tone. “That’s ok. We can take our time. Why don’t you give me the shoe?”

“What?” Gail’s scowl gave way to confusion. She stared at the object in her hand like someone else had put it there, then set it on the bed, shaking her head and muttering sounds that weren’t words, at least not ones I understood. When her eyes found mine again, they were full of Gail’s essence once more.

“Husband,” she said, with a touch of emotion in her voice, like she had just returned from a long trip.

My eyes dampened. “That’s right,” I said.

She reached for my hand and pulled me into a hug. She was so strong. She always had been, and in so many ways, stronger than me. She hadn’t lost that.

We remained locked in each other's embrace until I felt one of our stomachs rumbling, reminding me of the breakfast I’d heated growing cold in the microwave. Before we could get to that, Gail needed cleaning. She let me help her out of bed, and to my relief, the mess was not as bad as it often was. But there was a downside to that benefit. Her digestion had slowed over the last week; constipation was uncomfortable in ways she could no longer describe with words. Instead, worsening behavior showed me how she felt. I would have welcomed more to clean up in the morning if it meant more relief for my Gail. Yet even so, I thanked God for that little reprieve for me.

In the shower, Gail was helpful, playful even—a welcome surprise, and it warmed me. I hadn’t stopped being a man after all, even if my wife didn’t remember me half the time. I longed for affection. The smallest gesture; a pat on the shoulder, the touch of her hands cupping my face, even a fleeting smile, were like a trickling spring during the droughts of nurturing.

After she was cleaned and dressed, I led her to our small dining table beneath the window, and she gifted me a smile. I left for our kitchenette to reheat her breakfast. In that moment, my thoughts drifted to the dedicated staff who worked tirelessly downstairs as the microwave plate spun and hummed in the background. The dining hall kitchen was a short trip down one flight of stairs, one of the many unexpected blessings of moving from Hunt Club Apartments to Victory Centre. I wasted no time making friends with the kitchen staff. Theirs was a thankless job, particularly in a place like this, as I witnessed day in and day out. Whenever I remembered, I told them how important they were to us, emphasizing the profound positive impact they had on my wife's quality of life. If my friendliness encouraged them to be extra generous with portions and attentive to special orders for Gail, that was just fine.

“Who are these people?” Gail murmured, pulling me back to the present.

I paused in front of our microwave. “I’m your husband, Richard,” I said, more exploratory than an answer. I braced for what would come next.

She froze, no response, not even a simple turn of the head. “Gone again,” she muttered beneath her breath to no one, no one visible at least.

Since arriving at our new apartment, there had been less of the paranoid behavior and violence—the sneaker incident this morning, an outlier, was a far cry from the worst behaviors at Hunt Club. Hunt Club was near the beginning of it all, our first attempt at life after the signs began. It was a good place. Our apartment was big enough, and we could afford it. There was a small library, a recreation center with activities and other like-minded people we connected with. I thought it would be a place Gail and I could comfortably retire in. I was so naive. Within months of moving into Hunt Club, I got my first glimpse of just how challenging our future would become when I returned home and found my wife brandishing a blade.

“Gail, are you okay?" Fear gripped me as I considered the possibility of someone attempting to break in while I was away.

I rushed to take the knife and hold her, but instead of melting into the safety of her husband’s arms, Gail thrust the knife towards me. I stopped in my tracks, directing my gaze towards the weapon’s point. An intense pang of both alarm and anguish pierced my heart. Had she not backed away in fear as she defended herself, that might have been our final day together. Hunt Club was not at fault for our situation; they were merely an apartment complex tailored for independent seniors. What we needed was help.

The microwave ding brought me back to the present at Victory Centre and the gloriously less exciting life we now lived. As I stirred her scrambled eggs and cream of wheat, my attention remained divided with one eye always on her. During breakfast, I no longer felt like Richard, the husband. I’d become Richard, the intruder, an unwelcome presence in a world inhabited solely by Gail and her invisible co-conspirator. I wondered why her disease took her there. Was it safe from the real world she no longer understood? Oh, I wished to have her back. But that wasn’t the real world either. Here we were in the growing familiarity of odd happenings, and the reality we had always relied on before was fading away.

I understood little of what she said when she was “away.” Most seemed to be about whoever she thought I was. Occasionally, a few clear words would slip through. Sometimes I was accused by the identity as “him” or “the man.” But if ever she called this villain “Richard” to her invisible accomplice, and I answered with a “That’s me!”, a sideways glower was her stock punishment. Sometimes I knew who she spoke to because a stray name or clue would surface from her mumbles—a family member, her sister, or mother. Others, I didn’t recognize. Charlie was a common invisible guest, and I never learned who that was. This morning, there was no identity, and that was usual.

After a spell, her disgruntled conversation fell away, and hunger gradually stole her focus. As she turned her attention to her plate, I seized the moment to engage her, attempting to bridge the divide between us.

“How are you feeling, Gail?”

She didn’t acknowledge me, not even a fleeting glance. I nodded. I was still the villain. But she was still my bride, and I would always care for her no matter what.

That delicate balance was always on my mind. I watched her eat, landing one spoonful out of three, the others finding shirt or lap, falling back onto plate or table. Should I step in? was a question I asked myself at every meal. Nutrition was vital, and every bite lost was full of valuable calories and nutrients. Was it worth peeling away another layer of her already fragile independence?

I let her find her own way through breakfast and was proud of how much she managed to get down. That was a good sign, the experts told me. In situations like these, constipation tended to worsen with age, and appetite served as a reliable indicator for those who were unable to express themselves with words. I clung to the hope that her digestive system would soon find relief. And hopefully, there would be a positive shift in her mood as well.

I took her empty plate, and she resumed conversation with our unseen guest, pausing only when I came back for her napkin and to wipe up. I took her hand, which she received like a prisoner accepting cuffs, and guided her to the recliner, her favorite seat. I sat nearby. Her chatter started again; more mumblings broken by occasional clarity. Complete sentences had become increasingly rare, an absence that pained me deeply. We had always talked through our problems and enjoyed the many profound and mundane topics married couples often engage in. We leaned on each other in hard times and shared each other’s joys during the good ones. There were plenty of both, and we were stronger for all of it; we were stronger when we were together. How much I would have given just to ask what she needed and have her tell me in simple words. Communication, once taken for granted, became an unattainable treasure.

Over the next hour or so, I might not have been present at all for the little Gail noticed me. At times, she was serious—long stretches of scrunched eyes and noises that sounded aimed more than communicated. Then something would switch. Laughter would brighten her face, and she would sit taller in her chair, smiling, sharing some pleasant memory I dearly hoped was of me or us together. This continued until her therapist arrived in the early afternoon. I usually stayed to observe as she worked with Gail. Any clue from these sessions, a new way to communicate, might unlock some small improvement in our quality of life. But our fridge was nearly empty, so while another cared for her, I left for provisions.

Forty-five minutes later, I returned. My hands were full as I paused outside the door, listening. There was nothing. No sounds. No clues to what I might find inside. The bags crinkled around my wrist as I turned the knob and peered through the opening to find a changed Gail.

“There’s my husband!” a familiar voice greeted me as I used my butt to push open the door.

I don’t think I could have stopped myself from smiling if I tried. I set the bags down in the entrance and walked to my wife as she took up the last remaining step between us. As we embraced, she whispered “I missed you” in my ear, in the way she had done so many times throughout our life. There might not have been more in those words than a simple lucid moment, just the normal response to a husband returning from a quick trip to the store. But I felt the weight of years. I closed my eyes and told her I missed her too and held her tight, like I would never let her go. Eventually, I leaned back and took in the sight of my wife, enjoying every detail that made her uniquely beautiful. She smiled and said, “I’m hungry.”

The upturned mood was still there when I returned from the dining hall and placed lunch on the table. I asked if she liked each thing on the plate, and she smiled and nodded her approval.

“How do you like the sweet potatoes?

“Very good,” she said—the same answer given for the sliced pork and the apple crisp. Lunch crescendoed to the tune of a clear-as-day “thank you” as I picked up her empty plate. I swiftly attended to the dishes, my aging fingers moving with a sense of urgency so as not to miss a moment of this bliss, and rushed back to her side. She looked up at me, and a different face had replaced my Gail’s. It happened so fast.

This face was not new. I had been a constant, dark shadow at Hunt Club. Twisted and contorted—someone seeing this for the first time might believe they were seeing demonic possession.

There were so many versions of Gail throughout her dementia journey. A version would break through, stirring memories of my precious wife, transporting me to better years. Others…I couldn’t imagine where they came from—primal, awful fits of rage that would engulf her, removing any resemblance to the love of my life, replacing her with something I couldn’t know.

I pushed through the pain, a metaphorical knife twisting in my stomach, and forced a smile as I asked this distorted version of Gail if there was anything she needed.

“Bad…” she croaked. “Always bad to me…”

The rest of the afternoon was beset with highs and lows, each one higher or lower than before. Laughter was no longer soft and glowing but teetered on the edge of hysteria. Hostile shouting replaced the previous irritated grumbling. These turbulent waves of behavior battered us throughout the day. Upon returning from a trip to the bathroom, I found her chair vacant. I turned just in time to avoid the incoming assault of my own shoe this time, which fortunately missed its mark. A state of frantic dishevelment and agitation had taken ahold of Gail. Her blouse was on backwards, pants missing, my other shoe loosely clinging to one of her feet. I had been gone for less than five minutes.

I navigated the chaos, steering my wife away from various tripping hazards. A broken bone was my primary concern. Eventually, I managed to retrieve the shoe from her vice-like grip and guided her clumsily back to her recliner. Her mood sank together with her deep into the cushions.

After a pause, a sullen breath escaped her. “I have to get out of here.”

I called one of the CNAs for backup, a luxury I’d never had at Hunt Club. They were there within a quarter of an hour and with no small effort, gave her an antipsychotic tranquilizing pill. She resisted, irate and frightened. If it wasn’t for the adrenaline, I’m sure I would have openly sobbed.

I had mixed feelings about the use of these medications. I believed they were worsening her memory, her communication, and increasing the ever-present risk of falling. But in those unsettling moments, the drugs reduced Gail’s hallucinations and severe agitation. What else could I do? I was desperate.

Her mood returned to a sleepier version of this “new normal,” and we avoided the need for personal restraints. I felt the weight of not knowing if there was some better way. Oh, how I wished again, and so many times thereafter, that Gail could tell me whether what I was doing was right…or wrong.

By the time the sun peeked through the window that afternoon, my Gail had made another return—sleepy, lucid, smiling at me from the sofa. She allowed me to kiss her. I yearned for so much more than that. I wanted to shower her with affection, to hold her so tight she’d never slip away again. But I knew I couldn’t keep her there. That was not up to me. I stayed still in that quiet, sweet moment, trying not to disturb it, like a hiker watching a shy doe enter his path. My little doe stayed with me that evening until she nodded off into a peaceful sleep, and I left her on the sofa until well after dark, glad to let her rest undisturbed.

Just before retiring to bed, the nurses arrived to help Gail change into pajamas and administer her medications. She asked for a hug, and as I did, silent tears escaped my guard. Within a few moments, Gail's breathing grew heavy, mirroring the peaceful rhythm it had that morning, another break in this chaotic world she now resided in. I crawled into my own bed beside hers and fought sleep, not wanting to leave the spell of the previous moment.

I woke suddenly, expecting to check on Gail in the dark as usual, but instead was greeted by a sliver of light shining through the bedroom window. I had slept in, a rare occurrence. It felt good…but only for a moment. Realization that I hadn’t helped Gail with any nightly bathroom activity flooded my groggy consciousness—a disaster was likely waiting for me.

Scanning her bed, I found blankets thrown off and only a pajama top covering her. I crept past her sleeping frame and braced for the inevitable mess, searching for missing bottoms, imagining the filthy wake left in every room as Gail wandered in search of the bathroom. An article of clothing caught my attention, an empty pajama leg drawing me to the open bathroom door. I found the missing bottoms lying dejected on the floor—no mess, no smell lifting from them. But an unpleasant odor lingered in the air, and I glanced in the open toilet bowl. A smile of relief crossed my face. She was finally turning a corner, and the proof was floating solid in the water. I couldn’t restrain myself from saying aloud, “It is going to be a great day. What a lovely wife I have.”

Gail was still sleeping peacefully in her bed, so I cracked open my new journal and began scratching down the events of the previous day. Rarely was there a spare moment to document our journey, but I wasn’t complaining. I was in the boat with Gail, clutching the oars tightly as we surrendered to the currents.

“My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Psalm 139:15-16

Get In the Boat, a caregiver’s journal turned memoir, tells us exactly how a caregiver lives and feels yet still gives us something positive to hold on to. Giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the daily roller coaster of emotions a caregiver lives through is not only honest, it's refreshing. In a world where honesty often seems to be synonymous with sadness, this memoir stands out by presenting the raw realities of caregiving without overwhelming the reader with despair.
Jennifer Fink Host of the Fading Memories podcast
Get In The Boat is a true gem for caregivers, offering an abundance of wisdom, no matter where you are on your caregiving journey. Having spent 10 years in the senior caregiving community, I was absolutely captivated by the fresh insights and reassuring advice this book provides in navigating the complexities of dementia care.
Vicki Striegel, MBALNHA Licensed Nursing Home Administrator

About the Author

Darlene Fuchs

Having lived more than six decades, Darlene's life has been marked by various experiences, including ups and downs, twists, and turns. She has been married to her soulmate for over 40 years and has authored a memoir titled "Get In The Boat," fulfilling a final promise to her father, Richard, made during the challenging battle with dementia that affected both her parents. Through the pages of this book, Darlene honors her parents' enduring love, documents their struggles with dementia, and shares the invaluable lessons they learned along the way. It serves as a tribute to their memory and a source of inspiration for others facing similar challenges in their lives.

Following Gail's dementia diagnosis, Richard became her primary caregiver, showing extraordinary affection and unwavering commitment to his beloved wife. Richard's passion for journaling later became a source of comfort and connection for the entire family. Darlene knew that her parents' story was worth sharing and wanted to honor their legacy by showing the world what love and devotion looked like even in the face of adversity. Drawing on Richard's daily journal entries, she weaves a powerful narrative of hope, faith, intimacy, and grief as her father balances his wife's needs with the joys and challenges of everyday life. Darlene poured her heart and soul into writing their compelling story.

"Get In The Boat" is a powerful and poignant memoir that captures the impact of dementia on her parents' lives and their family. It is a story of resilience in the face of life's most difficult encounters. It narrates the tale of a man who loved his wife so much that he confronted the complexities of caring for a loved one with a life-altering affliction, while experiencing the spiritual strength that sustained him through the most trying of times. It also recounts the story of a woman who left an indelible mark on their lives but was taken away too soon.

The author was devastated by the loss of her youngest grandchild, Noah, at the age of 3-1/2. However, she found solace in the fact that her parents had been reunited with him in heaven. Their love and faith had prepared them for that moment, just as it had prepared them for the journey through dementia.

Darlene's work has been praised for its powerful storytelling and its ability to touch the hearts of readers. "Get In The Boat" explores the limits of love, and serves as a testament to the enduring power and strength of the human spirit.