The story behind the story of a woman with Alzheimer's disease — and the name that meant I love you.
The hairdresser read the story in her morning paper.
And then Carol Patak read it again.
Carol is walking herself down the nursing home hallway, holding her leash in her mouth like an old lady carrying a purse.
Her left leg is shaved where they cut it open to fix her knee late last month.
She’s still limping as she heads upstairs, wearing a pink polka dot collar.
The golden retriever lives here at Sumner Place, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility on 20th Street.
In 2006, a family bought her to thank the staff for the love and care they showed their mother, who was just 63 when the Alzheimer’s began ...
The story was about a therapy dog and a woman who’d grown up in the Sandhills and raised two daughters and ended up in Lincoln with early stage Alzheimer’s. A woman who’d died in 2012.
Carol knew that woman, Kay Puckett. She fixed her hair, years ago. She didn’t know anything about a therapy dog named Carol.
She kept reading.
The staff in the locked memory unit at Sumner Place (then Milder Manor) loved Kay. She was chatty and friendly.
She loved to walk the halls.
She sat with them in the evenings as they did their paperwork. When it was bingo day, she repeated the numbers. B-11. O-59. N-33.
She had other words she liked to repeat: Flower pot. Corner route. Food line. Carol.
Carol had been the name of her hairdresser at Windcrest; now, whenever Kay talked to someone she liked, she called them Carol, too.
She called her grandkids Carol. She called her daughters Carol. She called her son-in-law Carol. She called staff members Carol.
It was a term of endearment ...
* * *
“Kay was a really special lady,” Carol the hairdresser said Thursday afternoon, placing a cape around the shoulders of her last client of the day.
“She would walk by and stop and say, ‘I really like your music. Can I come in and listen?’”
Carol would tell her yes. Come on in.
Kay liked to linger by the second-floor salon. One day she told Carol she could fold towels, and after that whenever she’d spot Carol with a freshly dried load of laundry, Kay was there to help.
In 2004, she left Windcrest for Sumner Place.
And Carol kept styling hair for the women and men who’d left their homes — and their old beauticians and barbers — behind.
“They’re just all special people,” Carol says, wearing tan pants and tennis shoes, her own hair in a short bob. “They all have a story, if you listen.”
* * *
Carol tips her 3 o’clock back in the chair for a shampoo.
“No cards today, Norma?” she asks. “You didn’t have bridge?”
Norma Thomsen hasn’t lived at Windcrest long, but like most of the women here, she comes in every week to have her hair done.
Carol helps her with her walker. Sets her glasses aside.
Carol was working at a salon near 33rd and Sheridan when the assisted-living facility’s first administrator called and asked if she’d like this job.
Four days a week, Saturdays off.
“I’d just lost my mom and my aunt and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do that.’”
Carol grew up in Hastings and came to Lincoln after beauty school in 1966. She met her husband here, raised a son. She’d go home on the weekends to tend to her own mother and her Aunt Vi when they, too, began to lose their memories. And she always fixed their hair, of course.
Nearly 50 years of perms and curling irons, sets and shampoos, the past 14 in this small second-floor salon.
She rolls Norma’s soft white hair in colored curlers, lime green, lavender, orange.
“I don’t think your puppy has been here yet today, has she?” Carol asks.
Carol is an animal lover. There’s a pet calendar on the wall, and a schnauzer at home. A few Windcrest residents have pets. A small dog, a half-dozen cats. Norma’s children bring her dog to visit.
That’s important, said Carol.
“I told my son, if I ever have to leave my home, do not take my dog away.”
Many of her new clients are mourning what they’ve left behind, she says. Their homes, independence, possessions.
“I can’t imagine giving my home up; I know it isn’t easy.
Some of them are confused, like Kay was.
“I don’t correct them. That’s not my job. I just let ‘em talk about how they feel.”
* * *
She finishes Norma’s curls, and pulls off the cape for a walk to the dryer. She helps her get to her feet and to her walker.
“Do you want your glasses, Kiddo?”
Norma does. Carol sets her under the heat, a table of magazines handy.
She loves this job. Loves the people.
She hears a lot of stories. War stories from her men.
“They’re very interesting. I don’t care how old they are, they don’t forget.”
Her ladies like to talk about recipes and gardening.
“And their grandchildren, of course. And they’re always interested in looking nice — and most of them are interested in making new friends.”
Many of her clients become friends.
When people move to Windcrest, Carol styles their hair until they leave. Some pass away, some move to nursing homes, like Kay.
“It’s tough. I’ve lost a lot of really good friends.”
Before she got sick, Kay loved to cook. She’d make a Thanksgiving-sized dinner every day on the family’s ranch near Atkinson.
She’d been a teacher and she loved being a mom, and then she loved being a grandma. She loved baking, sewing, reading, she loved people and sports.
It was hard watching that woman slip away, her daughter says.
“You grieve all the time what they’re not doing, it’s like your kids except backwards.”
But the employees at Sumner Place helped ease that pain.
They sat with Kay into the night when she was upset. They talked to her about old times, the ranch, the corner routes, food lines. They treated her as if she were their own mother, or grandma.
They answered to the name Carol.
Kay lived six more years in the south wing of Sumner Place. When her family came to visit, Carol did, too. Kay was 76 when she died on Oct. 9, 2012.
More than two dozen staff members were at the funeral, and one golden retriever.
One day, after the story of Kay and Carol the therapy dog ran in the paper, someone brought it up to Carol, the hairdresser.
“They were laughing about it. I said, ‘Hey, I consider that an honor.’”
Carol went to see the golden retriever in January.