Photo by Steve Mitchell
Don Reddington will continue to remind people that, “Life is good,” for a long time to come.

Don Reddington’s legacy of promoting Alzheimer’s disease awareness won’t die with him

On the day that he was to return to his Twisp River home for the last time, Don Reddington instead died peacefully in a hospital room surrounded by family members.

His wife, Ginger, is convinced that’s how Don wanted it.

“Deep down, he made a plan … it was one of the last things he could decide, and I’m really happy for him,” Ginger said in an interview last week, a few days after Don’s death on the morning of Oct. 2. “We’re joyous for his departing because he was not happy in his situation.”

Don, whose courageous public efforts to bring more attention to Alzheimer’s disease were chronicled in the “Living With Alzheimer’s: The Reddington Project” publication in 2016, had been in Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee since August, first in a mental care unit and then in a more-accessible ward.

Earlier, Ginger had said the plan was to move Don to a Veterans Administration care facility for dementia patients. But as Don’s prognosis deteriorated along with his physical and mental condition, Ginger said the family instead decided to bring him home for hospice care for the month or two that he was expected to live.

Before he was transferred to Central Washington, Don had resided at Jamie’s Place in Winthrop until that facility could no longer care for him. Don had wandered away from Jamie’s Place on one occasion, and was physically acting out his frustrations in ways that the staff could not handle.

“He’s gone downhill dramatically in the last three months,” Ginger said in an earlier interview after Don was transferred to Central Washington. “That was unanticipated. I thought I would have another year at home with him.”

“Jamie’s Place did an amazing job,” Ginger said earlier of Don’s three-month stay there. “But there’s a point where they can’t have him there.”

Aware, and active

Don Reddington was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years ago, and was an outspoken proponent of acknowledging and living with the disease. He wrote a series of well-received articles, “Living With Alzheimer’s,” that appeared over several months in the Methow Valley News in 2015. Later, the articles were combined with other stories and photography in the special magazine, “Living With Alzheimer’s: the Reddington Project,” which was produced by the Methow Valley News with the assistance of community donations that helped cover costs.

At the time of the magazine’s publication, Don was cognizant of what he could expect. He foretold the final stages of his life with typical candor about coping with the inexorable disease. He feared losing his ability to speak and thus his ability to share his message.

“I wanted to talk to you right away,” he said during an interview in 2016. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to explain all this.”

As Alzheimer’s gradually but steadily eroded his cognitive abilities, Don continued to be as active as possible in the community, among other things volunteering at The Cove in Twisp on food bank days. An avid horseman, he had one last ride before he went to Jamie’s Place, Ginger said.

Final days

Despite attempts to stabilize his condition at Central Washington, Don’s struggles continued and he grew more distraught in the unfamiliar surroundings, Ginger said.

“He said, ‘I just don’t like it here, and I just want to die,’” Ginger said. Don stopped eating and drinking — not uncommon for advanced Alzheimer’s patients — and he continued to weaken.

Ginger had planned to bring him back to Twisp and was prepared to help him through his final days amid things that he cherished — the river, his horses, his chickens. “He did so love that place,” she said. Ginger and her sister, Vicki Walker, visited Don in the hospital on Monday night (Oct. 1) to pick up Don’s things, intending to come back the next day for the trip home.

But the Reddingtons’ daughter Donni, who lives in the Methow Valley and works as a nurse at Central Washington Hospital, got a call at about 5 a.m. Tuesday from a colleague at the hospital, who relayed that Don’s breathing had become more labored.

Ginger said the family asked that a message be passed along to Don: “Wait for us.” Ginger, Vicki, Donni and her partner Corbin Massey drove to Wenatchee that morning, arriving at about 9 a.m. Don died a little more than an hour later.  On Wednesday (Oct. 3), he would have been 75.

“He did wait for us,” Ginger said. “I told him I loved him, and he took a deep breath, and two minutes later he died. He heard us, and he knew we were there. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Long decline

Ginger said she had been living the affects and implications of Alzheimer’s even before Don’s diagnosis, as the early symptoms increasingly made themselves known. As the disease progressed, Ginger and the Reddington family responded and adapted to Don’s needs and moods. Eventually, she said, “You don’t have the same person … You are there for him and you get through the ordeal the best way you can.”

Just a little more than a year ago, that was still possible. In July 2017, Don and Donni completed the “Ride4Alzheimer’s,” a circuit of the state on a motorcycle driven by Donni, with Don in a sidecar. The eight-day, 1,300-mile tour of the state by motorcycle was part of Don’s ongoing campaign to promote awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and how everyone affected can best cope with it.

His ability to communicate declined steadily since then. “What shows up now is anger,” Ginger said earlier. “He wants his freedom and can’t have it. He walks when he is agitated because he has always been so physical.”

Celebrating a life

Ginger said she is overwhelmed by and grateful for the community’s response to Don’s passing. “People are yelling ‘I love you’ out of their cars,” she said. “I’ve had a million hugs, and I love it.”

She’s also learning more about Don’s legacy. “He did so much good  … I’m hearing about nice things he did for people and he never told me,” she said.

And, she said, the “Living With Alzheimer’s” magazine still resonates with people. “It humanizes the process and the disease … it still serves a lot of purposes,” said.

Don will be cremated, Ginger said. There will be a community celebration of life on March 23, 2019. More details will be available later. Meanwhile, Ginger said, “He will sit by his fireplace over the winter.”

At the celebration of life, a video that Donni made documenting the Ride4Alzheimer’s will be shown again.

Ginger said she’ll remain in the community. “I’m staying right here, in this place,” she said. “I’m a part of the valley and I’ll never leave it unless I’m forced to.” An accomplished artist, Ginger said she will devote more time to her painting.

“I have a lot of painting to do, trails to ride, good works to do,” she said. “It’s important that I continue what Don did.”

As for how she would like Don remembered, Ginger said: “Celebrate his life and how he touched you. Don’t think of his dying as sad, because it’s not.”

Alzheimer’s magazine available

Copies of “Living With Alzheimer’s: The Reddington Project” are available for free at the Methow Valley News office on the TwispWorks campus. To have a copy (or copies) mailed to you, there is a $5 handling fee, plus the cost of postage. Email or call (509) 997-7011 for more information.

A digital version of the magazine can be found here.

A lasting inspiration

Don Reddington was a remarkable man. I have never seen a person living with Alzheimer’s disease “make the most of it.” Not only did his zest for life follow him until nearly the end, “Life is Good” was his motto and he did everything he could to live each day with that spirit.

Don had a remarkable family, a dear wife who helped him mountain bike, cross country ski and horseback ride as long as he could. And daughter Donni crafted that amazing Ride4Alzheimer’s with her dad in the motorcycle sidecar across the state just last summer.

Don has truly been an inspiration to his friends, those who have cared for him and all who knew him. Not without the dark times that all those living with the disease, what I will remember is his determination to write about his journey with Alzheimer’s for the newspaper (a year-long project which has touched hundreds of people), his love of working at The Cove, the bright smile he greeted everyone with.

Telling the story: How Don Reddington’s ‘team’ crafted his message about Alzheimer’s

Don Reddington first struck up a conversation with me while we were standing in line for coffee. Within the first minute or two, Don had told me he had Alzheimer’s disease and that it was important to be open and talk with people about it. He told me he wanted to help educate people about Alzheimer’s.

His face lit up when I told him I was a reporter at the Methow Valley News. Don said that he and his doctor, Raleigh Bowden, were going to write a series of articles about Alzheimer’s from the patient’s point of view, and did I think the News would publish it?

Fast forward a few weeks, and there we were — Don, Raleigh and I — at our first meeting on the mezzanine at the community center. I had come prepared to take notes, but before I could begin asking questions, Don handed me a ream of pages about Alzheimer’s that he had printed from a medical education website.

He wanted to educate the world about the disease. He knew he didn’t want to write just one article about Alzheimer’s; he envisioned a series. He wanted to say it all. Don Reddington was a passionate man with a vision. Don dreamed big.

I knew we had at least one story. Don wanted me to write it; I felt it was important that it be in his words. I told Don and Raleigh that I would act as editor and help them craft a sample piece to present to Methow Valley News editor Don Nelson.

The writing process

Over the next six months, Raleigh, Don and I became a writing team, meeting regularly to brainstorm the next article. As much as possible, I took notes on what we discussed and tried to capture Don’s exact words: the way he spoke; his personal experiences with the topics at hand. Don often brought printed material from the medical website to our meetings, and asked me whether I read the information he had given me before. Our process of writing became a push-pull, with Don loosely paraphrasing the medical text, and Laurelle trying to extract Don’s ideas on the topics he wanted to cover.

Don’s wife, Ginger, told me Don would disappear into the office all day to work on the articles. She reviewed Don’s writing, and helped him with grammar, spelling and, I’m sure, some content. She said the process was difficult, but she was glad Don had a project on which to focus his energy.

For Don, writing was a mixture of obsession, passion and agony. He wanted to say everything, and he didn’t know how much longer he would be able to say it. Don knew that he would eventually lose his ability to write and express himself.

As the months passed, our writing meetings became more difficult. Don’s emotions were easily triggered and he became angry at me and the process. We tried organizing the meetings differently: Raleigh guided the questions and topics; Don answered and expanded; I sat back and took notes.

In the final column, published in September 2015, Don wrote: “Writing the chapters together has not been easy! As my disease has progressed the later part of the project was simply harder. It took me hours to work on each chapter. And it was harder to bring humor into the later chapters.”

Don was not afraid of Alzheimer’s disease. He was pragmatic, and understood the course the disease would take and what his future looked like. He clearly stated at the beginning of our project that he wanted to have the last chapter written by June, before the disease progressed too far.

I only knew Don Reddington in the context of “Living with Alzheimer’s,” but I knew a great man. He tackled an ambitious project, focused his incredible energy and intellect, and accomplished what he set out to do. I am honored to have known him.