Jean Blackwell opened the front door of her home and greeted me with with a smile and a warm handshake. Stepping inside, I couldn’t help but gasp at the enormous sailfish on the wall above her fireplace. “Jimmy caught that on a business trip,” she said. I responded in amazement, “How? Where? … You can’t be serious.” But she was. Jimmy had fished since his childhood, and he caught the sailfish on a business trip in South Florida before he retired.
Jean Blackwell stands beneath a giant sailfish caught by her husband on a business trip years before his death. Jean lost her husband to Alzheimer’s in 2016.
We sat down in the living room, and Jean shared about her experience caring for her husband, James “Jimmy” Blackwell, Jr., as he journeyed through Alzheimer’s. They met at a Virginia Polytechnical Institute (Virginia Tech) dance in Hopewell. Though they attended with other dates, Jimmy noticed her and asked a friend for Jean’s phone number. “I thought I probably won’t hear from him for a couple days… next morning he called! We went together for a year before we got married, and we were married 63 years.”
Jean and Jimmy had five children – Debbie, Linda, Jim, Tom and Nancy. “He was not real strong with the children. I had to be the one to whoop ‘em… but he was a very gentle man. He loved to fish and hunt… and he was a wonderful father, I mean, he just taught the kids so much. He could do anything, fix anything, and when he did it, he had the boys come and watch him. One of them has turned out just like him.”
Jean holds Jimmy’s portrait on her lap while wearing his wedding band. She lost her ring during the last few days of Jimmy’s life, but she wanted to keep something on her finger so she wears his ring now.
The Blackwells lived for 25 years in Hopewell and Prince George, and when Jimmy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Jean and her daughter, Nancy, took care of him themselves. “It was hard to communicate with Jimmy. I had to keep asking, ‘What did you say?’ and I hated to do that but I couldn’t tell what he was trying to tell me. That was one of the hardest things, not being able to communicate. I couldn’t be close to him at that point…”
Even through the grief of Alzheimer’s, Jean still has fond memories.
“I fixed breakfast every morning while Nancy was getting him up ready to come in here and eat. He’d come up the hall, and when he got to the door to the kitchen he would always say, ‘Hi, honey,’ and I’d always come ‘round and kiss him. And one morning he said it halfway up the hall before he got to the kitchen. Nancy would say, ‘Daddy, we’re not quite there yet.’ I thought that was so cute.”
But eventually, Jimmy’s health began to decline quickly. Both Jean and Nancy knew they needed help. “I noticed Jimmy was getting worse. He got very quiet… He didn’t want to take baths, he was losing interest in everything.”
It was at that point that they decided to call Crater Community Hospice. The CCH nurses and caregivers were able to reach Jimmy and care for him in a way Jean and Nancy struggled to achieve. CCH continued to work with the Blackwells over two months before Jimmy passed away. “They were absolutely wonderful. I do not know what I would have done without them. They all had their own personality, but it was good. They knew how to handle him and that was important to me… He accepted every one of them.”
Jean Blackwell sits in Jimmy’s chair in the living room of their home. Jimmy would sit in this chair and talk to Crater Community Hospice workers before he passed away.
Crater Community Hospice is the only nonprofit hospice in the Tri-Cities area. Their nonprofit status allows them to provide hospice care to anyone in need, regardless of their ability to pay, as well as resources to caregivers and bereavement support to those who have just lost a loved one.
“Crater Community Hospice is one of JRF’s grantees doing especially valuable work. ‘Help is Here’ is their motto, and many families and patients look to CCH for serious illness and end of life education, quality care, and supportive services,” said Mike Williams, Chairperson of the JRF Grant Committee and General Manager of Cogentrix Energy, LLC in Hopewell.
Bathing, shaving, meals, even just watching Jimmy so Jean and Nancy could grab some lunch and take a breather, Crater Community Hospice was a support and comfort to the Blackwells in a very difficult time.
“They were very good to me. They were asking me, ‘Are you alright?’. See, they always asked that every time they came in, ‘Are you alright? Before we start on Jimmy, I want to know how you’re doing.’”
It was that kind of concern, concern for Jimmy and his loved ones that made a real impact on Jean. In the 10 months after Jimmy’s death, Crater Community Hospice has kept in touch with Jean. They call and check in to make sure she’s getting on okay, and that has touched Jean deeply. She even went to their memorial service this year.
“I’m very happy with the way everything went. I have no regrets. I’m so glad we called hospice… I’m so glad. I know I couldn’t have done it by myself. I’m getting up in age too, and by the end of the day, I collapsed in that bed. I feel blessed that the hospice was there to help us.”Tags: Alzheimers, Crater Community Hospice, Grant Awards, Grants, Health and Wellness, Hospice, Nonprofit, Partnership, Philanthropy
This post was written by Ann Easterling