COMMENTARY: No longer a ‘leader of men,’ now lost to FTD

Despite the pre-dinner commotion around us, we sit intimately knee to knee. His hands are in mine, my thumbs circling his knuckles, caressing him as best I can in a crowded place.

He is not looking at me. Instead, he sits forward on the blue pleather arm chair, with his neck jutting out stiffly, vulture-like. He is staring at the floor between our joined knees.

I have to be content to gaze at the very top of his head. This is just as well: he cannot see my tears.

We have been married 41 years today.

We no longer live together. I committed him to the Delaware Veterans Home last November.

He went in with the posture and pace of the career soldier he was. Now he is stooped, slow moving and he cannot seem to lift up his head. The anti-psychotic drugs have something to do with it, or maybe it’s the progression of the disease, or maybe he just has given up. He’s stopped asking me to take him home.

Don and Eugenia Thornton walk with a therapy dog around the halls of the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford. (Submitted photo)

Don and Eugenia Thornton walk with a therapy dog around the halls of the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford. (Submitted photo)

Where he once was a leader of men, now he follows another resident around like a puppy dog. Those two walk and walk and walk, late into the night sometimes. The other resident leads, Don follows. While it breaks my heart, it is clear he enjoys the camaraderie of once again being in the company of men.

I get a lot of phone calls. They always start like this: “It’s not an emergency but …” The middle part goes like this: Don punched another resident. Don twisted a caregiver’s arm. Don leaned over to tie a shoelace and fell over. Don was found on the floor at the side of his bed. They end with the reassurance that he is perfectly fine now.

They take wonderful care of him. He is clean — much more so than I was managing before he moved into his room in the Gold Community. He is safe because he is behind locked doors. It’s a treat when staff escorts him off unit to the gift shop or when the dog and I walk around and around and around the general hallways. He wants to control her leash and be the leader again.

He loves the food and eats well, but he has to eat with plastic utensils, his food pre-chopped for fear he would hurt himself or others with the metal ones.

He has his own room, his own recliner chair, his own TV blaring “Animal Planet.” His favorite History Channel cannot be played as some residents have PTSD. But he doesn’t really watch TV anymore and lost interest in it before he moved there.

He has some books, some photos, and his favorite print of Napoleon descending out of the snowy Alps onto the plains of Piedmont in late May of 1800. Don loved this print because shortly thereafter, Napoleon led his troops to victory after victory, ending at Marengo, the final battle of the campaign. His fame secure, Napoleon would become emperor four years later.

Don would often look at that print, smiling to himself at the promise that moment held for Napoleon. Perhaps he was thinking of what the future might hold for him, an Honor graduate of multiple military schools, beginning with West Point in 1970, a man who held the job Eisenhower once held in Army War Plans Division, a Bradley Infantry battalion commander in Germany during the Cold War. Today, the print means nothing to him. It’s just background noise like the TV.

Don has Frontotemporal Degeneration, a fatal disease once called Picks after Arnold Pick, the man who first described it. FTD is the most common form of dementia for people under age 60. It comes in three variants: Behavior variant frontotemporal dementia; Primary progressive aphasia; and Disturbances of motor (movement or muscle) function. For more information about the disease, please visit the Association of Frontotemporal Degeneration at

Sept. 25-Oct. 2 was designated as World FTD Awareness Week. I hosted a Food for Thought Event benefitting AFTD at Cowboy Up in Dover annually since Don was diagnosed. But not this year.

This year I am content to share his story with you; and to simply rub his hands and stare at the top of his head, hoping against hope that somewhere inside his mind he is riding with Napoleon across Italy and into glory.

Eugenia Thornton is a resident of Frederica.

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