Acting helps shake dementia's firm grip

Appeared in: Oakland Tribune

By: Dave Newhouse

JOANNE GRIMM acted out a hospital scene for the students of
the Samuel Merritt College School of Nursing in Oakland. She was
preparing them for real-life medical situations they will
encounter one day.

Only Grimm wasn't play-acting.

She has lived a hospital-like existence for three years because
of the failing health of her husband, Roy Grimm, who now requires
hospice care at home for frontal lobe dementia.

"It's like watching a snowball go downhill," she said in a
private moment after class had ended last Wednesday.

Joanne Grimm and her Stagebridge group of elderly amateur
thespians had portrayed dementia-like scenes for future caregivers.

The scenes are intended to show them "how devastating it can
be," Grimm said. "The change in Roy's personality was instant. One
minute he was fine, the next minute he wasn't."

Oakland-based Stagebridge was founded in 1978 by Stuart Kandell
who saw the need to give the retired and elderly something fun to
do, such as becoming senior-citizen Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett

This concept led to improvisational performances, generally in
front of school kids and other seniors, often in care centers.

And Grimm and others in Stagebridge have become convincing actors
in spite of their inexperience.

"Stagebridge is my safety valve, the one thing I do for myself,"
Grimm said. "I can come and be someone else for a few moments. So
there's these moments of laughter and I like to make people laugh."

Grimm, 74, joined Stagebridge seven years ago after completing
a 27-year career in local education, the final eight years as
principal of Oakland High School.

Roy Grimm, 82, spent nearly 34 years at the Oakland Tribune,
retiring as managing editor — my boss — in 1989.

He fit the editor's image, smoking a pipe, measuring his words
carefully, alternating between stern looks and a wry sense of
humor and widely respected for his tough, but fair news judgment.

"Roy Grimm is an institution within this institution," said
then-Tribune publisher Robert C. Maynard at Grimm's retirement

Eighteen years later, Grimm islocked tightly inside the grasp
of a disease that won't let him go. Amazingly, he has been
pragmatic throughout.

"His initial reaction to what he had," recalled his wife, "was
'you play the hand you're dealt.'"

He has maintained a sense of humor even though he's now in
a wheelchair, he doesn't talk much because of his confused
mental state, he can't watch television because of a loss of
perception and his appetite is gone, thus he's losing weight

His wife of 53 years realizes his life is ebbing away.

"He took care of me the first 50 years of our marriage,"
she lectured the nurses, out of character, "and now it's my
turn to take care of him. My feeling is that's what a marriage
is; I'm devoted to him."

Their range of topics is limited, but politics always
seems to work.

"He voted in the last election, but can't write his name,"
she said during an interview. "We used to have tickets to
the Oakland Symphony.

Now he listens to nothing but Willie Nelson. And he never
liked country music."

Roy Grimm had smoked a pipe since he was 18. Then one day,
50-some years later, he couldn't load it or light it.

However, while dementia takes away, sometimes it gives back.

"Three days ago, he simply picked up the pipe, lit it and
smoked it," she said. "That's the way this illness works. It's
like we have today, let's hope we have tomorrow."

Joanne Grimm smiled, grimly, at the novelty side of dementia.

"You have to look at all of this as funny, actually," she
said. "If you just look at the downside of life, you have a
choice: You can just sit there and cry or ... ."

Lament? One of the Grimm's three children, son Scott, was
shot in a drive-by shooting two years ago.

He was hospitalized for a year and spent eight months in
critical care. He's fine now, but it was one more crisis to
deal with for this already burdened family.

"When I get to heaven," said Joanne Grimm, "I'm going
to ask God if he has me confused with Job."


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