Millie, the Turtle Teacher changes the world one student at a time

When a person works in the same profession for 62 years, there is no doubt they love what they do. Such is the case with Millie Shuford.  Born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1927, during the Coolidge administration, she left in 1944 to attend college at Mars Hill just north of Asheville to study history and English. She went on to receive a Mastor’s degree in English at Wake Forest University. Her education served her well as she spent the next several decades impacting class after class with her knowledge infused with kindness, compassion and encouragement.

Millie Shuford and Muffin
Millie Shuford and Muffin

English was the subject most near and dear to Millie’s heart throughout the years. One of her favorite stories is about the time she was given a class of 8th graders that had caused two other teachers to up and quit. It was in the early years of de-segregation and the kids were an unruly bunch. Millie described her first impression of the class as going to war—the kids were used to getting up and walking around or talking any time they wanted to. Millie’s first task was to get them to share ideas—but speak one at a time. After a couple of weeks, she was able to get them in line and begin to enjoy learning.

About that time, a band was scheduled to come to the school. She mentioned to the principle how excited her class was about the band. He said that since he knew how disruptive her class was they couldn’t go. She tried to assure him they would be fine, but he disagreed. When she told the kids, they were very sad; so she went back to the principle and asked again—promising him they would behave. Again he said no. She was determined that her class would attend the concert. So one morning, at a break; she picked up her pocketbook and went back to the principal’s office to ask one more time. Before he could say no, she told him, “If my class cannot go, then I cannot stay here as a teacher.” He could tell she meant it. He finally relented, but said they better be good. Her class was so happy—they attended the concert and behaved perfectly.

Millie Shuford as a young teacher
Millie Shuford as a young teacher

One of her greatest joys in teaching was to help her students get ready for college. She recognized that the kids needed extra training in order to succeed in life and was able to make significant changes in the way teaching was done. She was also instrumental in helping her kids find scholarships to go on to college.

Millie’s impact on the children and the education system of Myrtle Beach, SC is displayed by the street around the school that was named after her called “Shuford Avenue”.

One day, Millie read a poem to her kids about turtles – how they had such struggles to grow up because of all the obstacles they had to overcome – their legs were short it was hard to walk and they had a heavy pack on their backs, and yet they could do amazing things and live wonderful lives. The students could really identify with that, so they started bringing her turtles. She received so many she had to create a place to display all the turtles – over 400. There were stories about each one. The kids loved to look at and talk about all the turtles, Eventually Millie became known as the Turtle Teacher.

Another animal that she had an impact on, or better said had an impact on her is a darling little rescue dog named Muffin—so named because the doggie’s shaggy fur is the same color of the muffins her mama always baked for breakfast when she was a little girl.  The original owners found they didn’t have the time or inclination to care for the little doggy, and left her out on her own to wander the neighborhood. When they were asked if they would like someone else to care for the dog they immediately agreed. Muffin moved in with Millie and they are living happily ever after.

Other evidence of her impact is the abundance of letters she has received over the years from former students thanking her for the wonderfully positive effect she had on their lives.

Tommy Dodd, a former student wrote in a heart-felt letter, “This note is no praise, but the deepest thanks are owed to you. You have been much more than just a teacher. You have given me encouragement, and an inspiration to express myself. I only hope that every guy like me gets assigned a teacher like you somewhere in his educational life.”

His letter ended with a phrase she wouldn’t have thought he would say when she first met him, “May God bless and keep one of the kindest sweetest, most beautiful people in the world.”

Millie said her desire was always, “To realize that I’m capable of living on my own, and taking care of others, and doing something important.”

I believe she has accomplished that immeasurably.



Has your world been touched by dementia? My recent book, “Finishing Well: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and  tips finishingwellinlife3Dcoverabout doing life with my Mama. May it encourage and inspire you to find the joy in your own, unique journey.

Find our group on Facebook 

Soda Studies

I have set a few Google Alerts of topics that I am interested in or researching. They show up in my inbox on a regular basis.

Soda

A recent slew of articles captured my attention. They were all on the subject of sodas and sugary drinks. It turns out that there does seem to be a correlation between soda consumption and memory loss. Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion that even die-hard soda drinkers might have suspected these beverages were not a health food. But, us humans like what we like and at times it takes something like a study to give us the little extra push to make changes.

There were two studies, done at Boston University came up with a “very strong suggestion” that not only do sugary soft drinks shrink the human brain and reduce memory capacity but sugar-free versions lead to higher chances of stroke and dementia.

Our findings indicate an association between higher sugary beverage intake and brain atrophy, including lower brain volume and poorer memory,” explained corresponding author Matthew Pase, PhD, fellow in the department of neurology at BUSM and investigator at the FHS.

Energy drinks

The Framingham Heart Study has been going on for a long time. They looked at the offspring of the original volunteers who enrolled in 1948—those who consumed more than two sugary drinks a day of any type—soda, fruit juice, and other soft drinks—or more than three per week of soda alone.

Sudha Seshadri, a professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a faculty member at BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, who is senior author on both papers says, “It looks like there is not very much of an upside to having sugary drinks, and substituting the sugar with artificial sweeteners doesn’t seem to help.

On the other hand, according to a recent study led by Assistant Professor Feng Lei from the Department of Psychological Medicine at National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, a cup of tea a day can keep dementia away, and this is especially so for those who are genetically predisposed to the debilitating disease.

Coffee too seems to offer some protection. Recent studies seem to indicate that it may actually improve your health – from boosting brain power, to delaying Alzheimer’s disease and improving memory as you age.

On a side note: Do you enjoy coffee but not like the side effects of caffeine? You can still enjoy coffee’s benefits. Studies have shown that even decaffeinated coffee can lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (Read my post Drink Up….Habits Worth Brewing )

Thirst quenching is a serious issue. Dehydration can also  cause confusion as well as a vast variety of medical problems. Perhaps plain old water would be the best candidate for our drink de jour.

A Time to Mourn

I somehow assumed that since Mama had been slipping away bit by bit for over a decade, that I would have said all my goodbyes and experience her passing with a minimal of grief. I don’t know if I ever said any of that out loud, or whether it was just a vague idea, but either way, as it turned out this was not true. After her passing, I experienced sudden bouts of crying and waves of sadness would wash over me at unexpected times.

Two of our children watching the memorial service on iPads
Two of our children watching the memorial service on iPads

Another assumption I had made was that since Mama had been ‘out of social circulation’ for over a decade, and several of her friends had already passed, it would be better to hold a quiet, family gathering to remember her rather than a more formal memorial at a church. Again, my assumption turned out to be mistaken. I quickly came to realize that not only did I need to have a memorial for Mama, other family members, friends, church friends and previous co-workers also needed to have the closure that a memorial service provides.

We wanted to keep it on the simple side. The first thing my sister and I needed to decide was: who would perform the service and secondly, where would it take place?  We decided to hold it at the church where my sister teaches a class. It made sense as there would be built-in support from others who attend there. Mama had been an Episcopalian but had stopped attending a number of years ago due to health issues. We felt it would be okay with her to be remembered at a Baptist church.

We also wanted the service to be performed by the same person who had performed our daddy’s memorial service a decade ago. It was slightly more complicated—not only had he and his lovely wife moved to Portland, Oregon, but they were also dealing with the grief of losing a son in a very unexpected and tragic circumstance. Nevertheless, he agreed to perform the service and we set a date.

The next item on our to-do list was to write an obituary. I wrote up a preliminary draft, and my niece, Christi who is our family historian filled it out in a way that wonderfully captured Mama’s personality. Obituaries can be expensive to place in the newspaper, but it helps to let others know about the passing and memorial details, as well as a useful record for future generations. Costs can be kept to a minimum by only submitting basic information.

Due to this modern, mobile age, much of our family—like so many others are living in other states and countries. But also due to the modern age, we now have technology that helps overcome these distances. Some of our children were able to attend the memorial service through the use of Facetime. We set up two iPads on the front pew and everyone could see and hear quite well. Technology is great!

And finally, a memorial service is also one more way to show honor to a parent. As God’s word tells us in Ecclesiastes, there is “A time to mourn.” I have come to the conclusion that memorial services – no matter how simple or elaborate, are an essential piece of the grieving process.



Has your world been touched by dementia? My recent book, “Finishing Well: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and  tips finishingwellinlife3Dcoverabout doing life with my Mama. May it encourage and inspire you to find the joy in your own, unique journey.

Find our group on Facebook 

Less Taxing

This is the time of the year when even the best of procrastinators have to reluctantly gather all the bits and pieces received from various financial institutions such as banks, employers, Social Security, brokers as well organizations that send retirement benefits.

When I was (much) younger, my Mama had me help her do their taxes so that I could be her backup if she couldn’t do them. That was back in the late 1970s when taxes were a whole lot simpler. I found that I actually enjoyed it. One day, I happened to hear about an IRS program that helped folks file their taxes and thought it would be worth looking into.

The first year that I volunteered, I took the classes in Redding with the intention of working at a tax site in Red Bluff. We opened a site, but it didn’t get a lot of response. The next year I discovered a group that had been trying to accomplish the same thing so I joined them. Classes were held at the First Baptist Church in one of their Sunday School rooms.

They took place in January and the only source of heat was from a wood burning stove – so along with pencils and calculators,  students were also required to bring a piece of wood for the fire. Those were the good ol’ days – we also used carbon paper and folks had to mail in their completed forms to the IRS. The tax classes had been taught by IRS employees, but they wanted to expand and advertised for instructors. I immediately volunteered.

Over the past 30+ years that I have been involved, the tax program has evolved to a much higher level of sophistication – we now use computers instead of pencils and carbon paper and e-file the returns instead of mailing them to the IRS – it is a more accurate and quicker way to accomplish this annual project. One thing that has not changed is our dedication to provide free help to anyone who needs to file their taxes.

To that end, the TaxAide program in Tehama County is in full swing for this year’s tax season. To make an appointment, call 727-8298 – you will hear a recording prompting you to leave your name and number so that someone can call you back with the details. TaxAide also has a web site with a few more details about the program TehamaTaxAide.weebly.com

USA.gov has a web site that may be helpful as well: Filing Your Federal Taxes

We have a knowledgeable, kind and caring crew of volunteer counselors who look forward to assisting you file your taxes.

P.S. We are always looking for volunteers.

The Power of Chocolate

There are several desserts and snacks that are not tempting to me at all. Unfortunately, there are also several that are. Chocolate – specifically dark chocolate is one of those on my ‘really, really like’ list. In light of that, I was quite pleased to read a recent article with the headline: “New dementia pill made entirely from CHOCOLATE hits shelves in Britain after cocoa was found to improve blood flow and help the heart” Yes!

The pill is called ‘Blood Flow+’ and (for the time being) is only available in the UK. The chocolate pill uses flavanols extracted from cocoa to improve blood flow and combat cholesterol levels, which help reduce dementia, strokes and heart attacks.

Dr Alf Lindberg, advisor of Cambridge Nutraceuticals, a research company, said: “We believe this is the way forward. New analysis is showing there are powerful compounds in many natural nutrients that could help maintain the health of everyone. We support the huge amount of research has gone into Blood Flow+ and we are delighted that it is the first cocoa flavanol product officially allowed to claim it benefits heart health.”

That seems to be great news for folks like me who love, love, love dark chocolate. Sadly, the articles I read all agreed that simply eating dark chocolate wouldn’t have the same effect. It turns out that in order to get an effective dose you would have to gorge on 400grams (almost a pound) of dark chocolate, containing a whopping 2,429 calories – every day! That might even be too much for me.

Take heart, though. Even we are not able to get the benefit from

My sweetie bearing chocolate gifts

the ‘Blood Flow+’ pill, a recent study led by Professor Ian Macdonald, a University of Nottingham expert has found that consumption of a cocoa drink rich in flavanols — a key ingredient of dark chocolate — boosts blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours.

Increased blood flow to these areas of the brain may help to increase performance in specific tasks and boost general alertness over a short period.

So it seems as if eating any amount of dark chocolate is still potentially good for you. I think it’s a risk I need to take.

In light of all this, if you’re not quite sure what to get your sweetheart for Valentine’s Day, it just might be a good idea to pick up some dark chocolate – to share.

Everybody was Kung-Fu fighting

How safe do you feel? I recently took a self-defense class for women. The class was a one-day workshop taught by a Kung-Fu Master – which means he had mastered the fighting style of the Chinese martial arts. Now, if they had advertised the workshop as a Kung-Fu class, I may not have attended, as I have no desire to begin learning martial arts at my age. However, since it was advertised as a self-defense class, I thought that perhaps I could learn some things that would be useful in case I needed to defend myself.

Ninja

Apparently others thought the same thing as the room was filled with women who were north of 50.

I immediately liked the teacher. He had a calm and confident attitude about him. His voice carried neither arrogance nor nervousness as he began talking about what he would be sharing with us that day.

My own confidence level increased when he explained that Kung-Fu was developed by the Chinese – who were generally of smaller stature – for self-defense. He went on to explain that the main requirements are brains and balance. It turns out that women have an additional benefit if they learn a few techniques – the element of surprise, as their attacker would likely not expect them to provide any resistance.

Even without a class, there are two things that anyone can work on immediately:

  1. Be more aware of your surroundings: Being aware of your surroundings seems obvious, yet in the rush of our busy schedules, as a caregiver, we also need to stay attentive to our loved one, and may not always able to be as alert to possible danger. Making a commitment to becoming more aware of what’s going on around you as well as practice will help.
  1. Maintain or improve your balance: This can be helpful for a variety of reasons, but for our discussion here, the more stability someone has, the less likely an attacker can throw that person off balance. Practice your balance by standing on one foot for 30 seconds – then switch to the other. You can do this almost any place or time, but be sure to have something close to grab onto in case you get wobbly.

It is also a good idea to make a plan to keep your cell phone charged at all times in case you need to call 911. An “Alert” button on a necklace would add a layer of security as well.

If it’s possible, try to find and attend a basic self-defense class that will give you the training to help equip you in case of an attack. The class I took was offered by my church but adult classes and workshops are often held at community centers or martial arts studios as well.

Ideally, never having to face a dangerous situation would be best, but since life isn’t always ideal, learning how to anticipate peril in order to avoid it would be the best way to keep yourself safe.

No one can completely avoid danger, but do everything you can to resist – the element of surprise is on your side. Then call for help.

The Messenger

Muriel Aasve Blankenship (Mama)

Over the past decade or so, my Mama’s communication skills progressively deteriorated throughout the entire journey of the disease called dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s).  The first indicators that something was wrong began to manifest as seemingly normal conversations included statements that were repeated over and over (We referred to those incidents as her loop).

As time went on, her conversation skills melted slowly away as her ability to string sentences together decreased.  At first it was a back and forth thing – there were good days and bad. The good days gave us hope, while the bad days confirmed we were still on the same downhill path.

For a period of time, Mama retained what I called ‘Muscle Memory responses’. For example, if you asked her how she was doing, she would respond, “Fine.” Or, “Would you like something to drink?” her answer might be “No”, but then she would proceed to pick up the glass and drink it right down.

Mama’s ability to sing remained long after her ability to speak went silent. We knew a lot of songs and so the majority of our visits were spent singing. Eventually, her ability to sing left as well, so I sang all the songs for both of us.

In spite of the fact that her voice was silenced, Mama still had the ability to communicate with her eyes. Quite often when I was singing, reading or praying, her eyes would fill and tears would roll down her cheeks. I found a few Psalms, such as Psalm 23 and 71 that seemed to fit her so I read them to her over and over. I knew they would minister to her spirit so it felt as if I could still ‘do’ something for her.

Over the course of this extraordinarily long journey, various folks would comment that it seemed such a shame about her condition. I had more than one conversation with the Lord regarding it as well. Early on, our family was determined that we would do everything possible to help Mama finish well, but there were times that I wondered just what could be the purpose for this lingering a little longer.

Then one day while reading Psalm 71 to her, I noticed something. Verse 18 says, “And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Thy strength to this generation, Thy power to all who are to come.

I wondered how Mama, who couldn’t even speak, be able to declare anything about God to anyone? I gave it some thought. I pondered it. I wondered.  Revelation came to me over time. I learned that the word ‘declare’ could also mean ‘messenger’.

Mama was a messenger. Her life was a message that didn’t need words. She silently communicated that God did not forsake her.  In spite of the long, downward journey into the valley of the “Shadow of Death” that lasted over a decade, Mama’s sweet quietness steadily declared God’s strength to everyone around her.

This season also gave her family something else. Time. The extra time we were given allowed us the opportunity to show her honor. Honor due a parent and honor to a fellow human being. We had time not only to care for her, but her condition opened doors that we never would have otherwise walked through.  We were able to get to know both residents and caregivers alike, and these visits were full of chats, sharing the love of Jesus, joys and concerns as well as praying and singing. Perhaps even providing hope to someone else on a journey that God will give them strength as well.

The day came and Jesus sent the angels; her work here was done. Mama finished well.

“What can she do?”

…that was the question a friend of mine asked me recently. She told me her Mother-in-Law just moved in with her and her husband from a rehab center following a knee replacement. The family had begun to notice she was beginning to become forgetful and was repeating herself fairly often, so they were worried about her living alone.

My friend loved the idea. She had some time off work and looked forward to spending some quality time with her lovely Mother-in-Law. At first, it worked out well – they had fun visiting and enjoying each other’s company. But then my friend had to go back to work. Suddenly, Mother-in-Law got bored.

I asked what sort of things did her Mother-in-Law like to do in the past. It turned out that she used to sew. Due to dementia, it seemed too risky to have her use a sewing machine, so we discussed other types of sewing, such as mending or hemming.  My friend remembered that she used to love to quilt, so she was going to find out if sewing the blocks together by hand might be an option – finishing the quilt wouldn’t be the goal – rather simply enjoying the process.

Discovering what your loved one enjoyed or was talented at prior to the onset of dementia is the key. Did they knit or crochet? Perhaps something like a working on a jigsaw puzzle might also be an option if your loved one has an interest in it. Grown-up coloring books have become very popular and might appeal to an older mind.

An important thing to keep in mind is that even though your loved one has diminishing abilities and might even act like a child at times, their likes and dislikes are still mature. Don’t insult them with a Barbie coloring book or puzzles with pictures of ‘Sponge Bob’

Each person has their own individual set of interests, skills, and talents, so it may take a while find just the right type of activities that will keep their interest. This process may require you to be both patient and flexible.

Sometimes a person just wants to feel useful. My Mama loved folding towels so I would sometimes quietly throw a bunch of clean towels into the dryer to fluff them up for a few minutes and then bring the whole pile of warm towels to her to fold. Mama loved it! At first she would hug the towels for a few minutes and enjoy their warmth and fragrance. Eventually, she would become surrounded by little stacks of neatly folded towels.

I also found a list that might also contain some helpful ideas: 50 Activities for Caregivers to do With People Who Have Alzheimer’s or Dementia

At the end of the day, your loved one simply wants what we all want – to know we’re loved. Some days will be better than others, but remember: You’re doing the best you can, and so are they.

It’s beginning to look , (smell & sound) a lot like Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas decorations.

🎼Jingle Bells, Yuletide smells, Christmas on display – bringing back the memories of a long past Christmas day.

A Christmas tree trimmed with old fashioned decorations and stockings hung by the fire along with the wonderful smells of gingerbread mingling with the sharp fragrance of pine and familiar songs of the season all work together to invoke memories of Christmas past.  Our senses are doorways through which memories can flow.

According to an article in LiveScience.com, Brain’s Link Between Sounds, Smells and Memory Revealed: Sights, sounds and smells can all evoke emotionally charged memories. A new study in rats suggests why: The same part of the brain that’s in charge of processing our senses is also responsible, at least in part, for storing emotional memories…Previously, scientists had not considered these sensory brain regions all that important for housing emotional memories, said study researcher Benedetto Sacchetti, of the National Institute of Neuroscience in Turin, Italy.

Since the Christmas season is chalk-full of sensory delights, this is the perfect time to take advantage of anything that could stir up memories in your loved one.

For example, if making gingerbread houses or gingerbread men was a beloved annual tradition, then the smell of gingerbread baking or the sight of a gingerbread house could trigger fond emotional memories of happy times past.

The Christmas wreath on our front door.

Pine trees are another seasonal smell that is fairly easy to come by this time of the year– even just a few boughs can produce that wonderful fragrance.

According to Fifth Sense, The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.

Besides smells, the sights associated with Christmas such as decorated trees, poinsettias and twinkling lights might provoke a sense of joy accompanied by a memory or two of yesteryear.

Sounds abound as well this time of the year. Christmas songs and hymns are ring out everywhere you go – stores, coffee shops and even offices. Churches sing many of the beloved Christmas hymns and if your loved one has attended church prior to developing dementia, going to a service will provide a plethora of sights, sounds and smells of the season.

Since the senses are connected to memories, it is possible to provide your loved one with memory-triggering pleasures year around, but at Christmas, it is almost as if the whole world is in this process with you. So as much as possible, take the time to enjoy the sweet-smelling, merry, twinkling, singing most wonderful time of the year.

Merry Christmas!

Twiddle de dee

I remember watching my grandma twiddle her thumbs back when I was a little girl. It fascinated me. She did it all the time – usually while she was sitting in her favorite chair and either visiting or watching TV. She told me it was good to have something for your hands to do while you were waiting. That made sense to me and I remember trying to copy her when she wasn’t looking. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal now, but back when I was very young, teaching my thumbs to twiddle felt like a huge accomplishment.

finishing-well-in-life-twiddle
This one is from AbuelaVicky found at Etsy.comhment.

It turns out that no matter how old you become, it is still good to have something for your hands to do. Last year I wrote a post called For that Fidgety Feeling” about something called Fidgety quilts. I loved the idea.

When my Mama lived with us while she was in the middle stages of dementia, she constantly needed something to do. Prior to the onset of dementia, she both knitted and crocheted. But as the dementia became more and more pronounced,

BizzieLizzieKnits
This one is from BizzieLizzieKnits found on Etsy.com

she found it difficult to maintain any type of ongoing focus.  She would quickly become bored and forget what she was working on.

We kept her busy with short-term activities such as folding warm towels, sorting colored beads into small bowls according to their color, and one of her favorites: picking lint off of sweaters. Before dementia struck, Mama was very detail oriented. It made sense as she was a laboratory scientist and paying attention to details was extremely important.

If I had heard about fidgety quilts back then, I believe that Mama would have loved the idea. The fact that they don’t require any special skills or knowledge to play with the various ribbons, buttons and interesting items attached to the quilts makes them perfect for every ability level.

I recently watched a short news video on BBC titled: “Lancashire knitters ‘twiddle muffs’ dementia tool plea” where there was a plea for area knitters to make and donate “twiddle muffs” to local hospitals. The muffs are a great idea – especially if you are a knitter. If you don’t knit, you can still purchase a Twiddle muff for your loved one. They seem to be a bit less expensive as well as more portable than the ‘Fidgety Quilt’ so would make a marvelous Christmas present for a loved one who tends to get fidgety.

Twiddle Kitty
Twiddle Kitty

Once you begin to look, you will discover a whole world of items designed to help give loved ones’ fingers something to do and perhaps reduce periods of agitation.

If you happen to be a knitter perhaps you might consider creating a few extra twiddle muffs to bless someone who could use a thoughtful and helpful gift this Christmas season.