A GOOD AGE: Bringing moments of joy to Alzheimer’s disease

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Joan Middleton, of Hingham, and son, Tom, view a family scrapbook, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. In memory of their late husband and father, Michael Middleton, they have helped start and fund a new Memory Cafe for people with Alzheimer’s at the South Shore Conservatory of Music. Gary Higgins/photo

PATRIOT LEDGER – Accomplished and ambitious, T. Michael Middleton graduated from Yale University and Harvard Business School, was a U.S. Navy officer and founded his own investment firm. Members of his family describe a brilliant perfectionist with a dry sense of humor, a man of integrity who loved hiking and camping.

Then, when he was in his early 70s, he began the heartbreaking descent into Alzheimer’s disease, which took his life in 2011, when he was 77.

Over five, long difficult years, he was cared for with extraordinary devotion by his family. Now they want to give back to help others.

“To the very end of his life, the one thing that would bring happiness to Mike was music — that and ’I Love Lucy,” his wife, Joan Middleton, said. “All his life Mike enjoyed music, particularly classical music. In his 40s, he took piano lessons. The frustration was he was building a company. But music resonated with him to the very end.”

Six years after his death, Joan Middleton, her son, Tom, and daughter, Leslie, joined with the South Shore Conservatory of Music to create a new program for people with memory loss, their caregivers and family.

“It’s time to bring back the smiles,” Joan Middleton said. “It is wonderful to be able to remember him in this way.”

L to R; Leslie, Michael, Joan and Tom Middleton on a family vacation in Florida in 2003. Soon after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age 72. Photo/Gary Higgins

The Middleton family is funding a Memory Cafe to offer music, arts, crafts and social connections to people dealing with Alzheimer’s, memory loss and other chronic illnesses such as Parkinson’s. The Memory Cafe will hold its second monthly gathering from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the conservatory.

“Alzheimer’s is an awful disease,” Tom Middleton, 53, of Hingham said. “You watch someone disintegrate a little at a time. It robs the essence of their personality and slowly fades the person away. Anything that can stabilize or give them a little of their memory or personality back … it’s not going to cure them, but if it can give them a good day or a good moment with their caregiver, that is really important.”

Mike Middleton founded his own investment firm, Middleton & Co. in Boston, in 1984, and he served on the boards of many local organizations, including the South Shore Conservatory and the Trustees of Reservations.

The subtle changes in his mind came on gradually, and initially he was able to cover them up. His doctor noticed a slowness; his colleagues at work realized he with struggled with the demands of his leadership position. At home, Joan picked up on puzzling incidents. He couldn’t figure the tip at a restaurant. On a trip to Italy in 2005, he declined to drive the rental car, and, “as we moved through the trip, he could not keep himself organized,” Joan recalled.

As soon as they returned, she made an appointment at Massachusetts General Hospital. Mike was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age 72 in 2006. Later, telling the news to her uncle, a physician, she broke down.

“Stop it,” her uncle said. “He is going to need you.”

Middleton never spoke about the diagnosis or what lay ahead. They realized he needed to keep things as normal as possible. After he died, daughter Leslie found a journal he had kept and made her mother promise not to read the entries.

“It will break your heart,” Leslie said. “He was protecting you.”

He had always been an intellectual who loved to read and come up with funny quotes and aphorisms like “Measure twice, cut once” or “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

His son recalled, “He was still getting a lot of pleasure from reading, well into the progression. It seemed especially cruel near the end to see him sit and just hold the book as a prop, maybe upside down. Piece by piece it takes people apart.”

One of Joan’s saddest memories is how his many daily and weekly newspapers piled up on the kitchen counter, unread.

“I knew this was getting to the end and I was going to lose him,” she said.

She tried a support group, read books on Alzheimer’s and searched for services that would tap into his interests in the arts and connect him to others, all to no avail.

“What helped the most was, in my heart, I knew my husband and I loved him beyond anything, and I just wanted to make each day the best I could for him.”

She had aides come in during the day, and relied on a network of family and friends. Her husband never became angry or combative; one of his rare outbursts was when he had to give up control over family finances, once his biggest strength.

After he had to sell his company and retire, his decline accelerated.

“He had worked really hard all his life, founded his company, built his company, and now was his time to enjoy life and travel with my mom,” Tom said. “And then the wheels came off the bus and he just went right downhill.”

Joan Middleton said she hopes that the Memory Cafe will “bring pleasure to many people. We know many on the South Shore who have struggled with this personally or in their family.”

The Memory Cafe is in the Conservatory’s Creative Arts Therapies Department at 1 Conservatory Drive in Hingham. Call Eve Montague, director, at 781-934-2731, Ext. 20, or send an email to e.montague@sscmusic.org.

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By Sue Scheible

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