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Phil Vassar is undoubtedly one of country music’s greatest singer/songwriters. Phil made his debut on the country music scene in the late 1990s. In 1999, he was named by American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) as Country Songwriter of the Year.

In his career, Phil has charted nineteen singles on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, including two which peaked at No. 1.

Phil and his two sisters graciously agreed to share their family’s story of their mother, Dianne, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about 5 years ago. It is a heartwarming story of a family’s unwavering devotion to their mother and what led them to make their decision regarding her care as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Phil Vassar with his mom Dianne Vassar

“Hey Mom, how are you doing today? Do you have your coffee?” asked Phil when he logged into FaceTime for a video call with his mom, just like he did every day.

His mother lived alone in Lynchburg, VA, where he and his two sisters grew up in a very loving home. Phil and his mom enjoyed their daily coffee klatches via FaceTime, but it was also the way that he was able to check on her since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Dianne was now in her early 70s and had noticeably been forgetting things, which was unusual for her.

His sister, who lived close to their mom in Lynchburg called and/or visited her every day as well. Phil’s other sister would also call from her home in Florida to visit with her and to make sure she was all right. As a family, this was the way they had collectively decided to monitor her while she continued to live alone after her diagnosis. At that point in time, she was still very independent and not in need of any assistance with her activities of daily living … yet.

Their mom had always been their rock, and the three of them worried about the unaccounted-for hours of the day when one of them was not visiting or speaking with her over the phone. They agreed they would implement an alternative plan once they believed she had reached that stage in her Alzheimer’s disease.

Over the next several years that Dianne lived alone, Phil would have her come stay with him in Nashville for months at a time. She really enjoyed her visits with him and was also able to see her five grandchildren who also lived in Nashville. Dianne loved being close to her grandchildren and being a part of their lives.  It was something that she truly treasured. They all had a wonderful time together and many of Phil’s friends would visit Dianne while she was there. She was loved and adored by all!

When she was back home in Lynchburg, she had a close circle of friends that would regularly get together. They would go to lunch, or a variety of other social activities, like going for walks.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head and changed our lives as we knew it, especially for those who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Dianne was no longer able to socialize with her friends and grew increasingly isolated and lonely.

She seemed to withdraw and lose her vibrancy, and she regularly expressed to her family that she was extremely unhappy. “I don’t want to live like this anymore,’ she would say to them.

The family also began noticing the obvious signs that Dianne’s disease was progressing. Dianne was becoming increasingly forgetful and easily agitated. One example the family shared was a time when Dianne was at her son’s house to watch a college football game.  About an hour after they watched the game together, Diane walked into the living room and asked what time the game was on. Phil looked at her in bewilderment. She honestly did not remember that they had just watched it!

She also started forgetting when she had eaten a meal and would subsequently ask what time they were going to eat. Another development was with her difficulty with conversations. She would stop talking before she finished a sentence or would not be able to find the right word to use in a sentence. The doctor informed them that their mother had developed Aphasia, which is the loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by the brain damage due to the Alzheimer’s disease.

There were also signs that Dianne was not taking care of herself properly when she was back at her home alone in Lynchburg. During one visit, his sister noticed that the only foods that were in her mom’s kitchen were orange juice, beer, ice cream, soup, and ketchup. She also noticed that in her mom’s bathroom there was a new collection of about 15 different shampoo bottles and approximately 15 different types of lotions. These were the signs they had been watching for, and decided it was time to consider other living options … living alone was no longer a safe or viable option for her.

Phil’s sister approached the subject of an assisted living facility with her and asked if she would be open to visiting one. Well, it took her less than five seconds to respond to that suggestion!

Dianne said, “There is absolutely no way I’m going to move into one of those places and live the rest of my life lonely and in isolation.”

Apparently, Dianne kept herself informed by watching television and reading the paper, so she was aware of the reports that during the COVID pandemic, the assisted living facilities and nursing homes were forced to end all visitations by family members.

She saw the writing on that wall and was not going to have any part of it. So, that option was out!

Statistically, about 50% of people with brain disease are aware that they have the disease and know that it is causing changes in their brains. Dianne has been cognizant of her condition since the beginning when she first started forgetting things, and often tells people that her brain doesn’t work right anymore, which sadly causes her tremendous frustration.   

In a separate conversation with his mom, Phil brought up that he and his sisters believed that living alone was no longer an option for her and asked her what she would like to do. He told her that it was breaking their hearts to see her so lonely and unhappy. She told him that she would love to move to Nashville to live with him, so they made it happen immediately. 

One of our favorite songs of the many that Phil Vassar has written is “Bye Bye” (with fellow songwriter Roy Bourke) released in 1998. “Bye Bye” features a character who at the beginning of the song looks admiringly at her lover, telling him how good he looks “standing in the doorway at the sunset light.” But she then tells her lover that she is leaving because she’s putting her “heart and soul on the line” in the relationship while he says he needs more time to make up his mind. If you remember the music video for that song, the main character says bye-bye to her lover and drives off in a red ‘67 Pontiac GTO convertible. (Jo Dee Messina)

What attracted so many country music fans to that song was that the character was taking back the power of her life and declaring a personal boundary. She was driving off in her GTO and courageously telling the world her truth: that she was no longer willing to be in a relationship with a man who couldn’t figure out what he wanted.

There’s power in those moments when we realize our true value and take action to live in a way that reflects those values.

Penning “Bye Bye” for Jo Dee Messina (with fellow songwriter Roy Bourke) helped Phil win songwriter of the year in 1999. It speaks to Phil’s skill as a songwriter that he was able to write from the perspective of a female character and for a song that is about female empowerment.

His mother was the embodiment of that empowerment, and fortunately, was still able to express how she wanted to live the rest of her life. Many who suffer from dementia are not able to do that. Phil and his sisters are thrilled with her decision to move to Nashville!

We would like to end this chapter with a few words from the consummate poet and songwriter himself. Phil was kind enough to share these thoughts with us: 

“After the COVID pandemic dismantled our lives, my mom was living by herself and had friends and family to spend time with. All that changed after COVID. The fallout from COVID was way bigger than we all realized.

We are social beings and need to interact with those we are close to and care about, but all that was taken away after COVID. Our mom was extremely lonely and felt completely isolated when she was living alone after the pandemic, so we asked her what she’d like to do, and she said that she wanted to move to Nashville to be close to her son and her 5 grandkids.

We noticed that after a period of being alone all the time, her outlook on life was very bleak! Now she’s happy. There was no question in our minds what the decision was going to be! This is our mom…she took care of us…now it’s our turn to take care of her.

The way she told us that she was lonely and tired of spending her entire life by herself hit a nerve. It was so emotional! I felt she was telling us that life was not worth living if it was going to be in solitude.

So, my family made the move to Nashville happen and she is so happy now. It has made a huge difference in the quality of her life. Personally, for us, the right thing to do was to move our mother to Nashville with us so she wouldn’t have to be isolated and imprisoned in her own home.

Her isolation came directly out of the COVID situation. I believe isolation is like solitary confinement…it’s a punishment, a torture. Solitude is a terrible thing, and we weren’t going to let that happen to our mother.”

                                                                        –Phil Vassar, son and songwriter

Further thoughts:

As is evidenced in our COVID-19 chapter, the number one impact that the pandemic has had on people with dementia in memory care facilities is isolation and loneliness. Studies have shown that the isolation has triggered a faster decline in cognitive health due to loneliness and not being connected with families.

In Dianne’s story, the family collectively made the decision based primarily on the fact that mom didn’t want to live the rest of her life in total isolation and loneliness due to the impact of Covid, along with the other noted impacts of the disease.  Coupled with the spread of Covid occurring in nursing homes and memory care facilities, the Vassar family made the right choice.

If the family had been discussing care options prior to the pandemic, they might have considered moving Dianne into a facility where they could visit regularly. Dianne may have been more open to the idea if she knew she could continue to see family. But it was the isolation factor in assisted living facilities caused by pandemic restrictions that re-shaped how they saw their care options, and for them, moving mom home was the best solution.

Today, families facing brain disease must consider the impacts of Covid when making decisions about a loved one’s care. Some families are choosing not to move their loved one’s into care facilities due to the isolation that pandemic restrictions have placed on those who require additional care due to brain disease.

Because of the choice to not move family members, the entire care plan landscape is shifting away from memory care and assisted living. The shift we are seeing is moving the Alzheimer’s parent into the home of the adult children and often bringing in caregivers to assist with the additional workload. 

Like Jo Dee Messina’s character in the song “Bye Bye,” we love Dianne’s story because it’s about a woman who finds her own power by expressing that she probably would rather choose not to live than choose to live a life of isolation and loneliness … not knowing when she would be able to see her children and grandchildren again.

We also love how Dianne’s children showed support for their mom’s choice and essentially made Nashville the new family base. Since her move to Nashville, one sister has relocated there to be close to her mom.  Phil’s other sister is also considering making the move.

This story illustrates a great example of how one family was proactive during the course of Alzheimer’s disease.  The Vassar family had a plan in place for each stage of it. Instead of being reactive, they made decisions and adaptations before the crisis happened.

When the overall brain is beginning to fail, the body in general seems to be less able to have the full ability to respond and recover to an illness.

The evidence to date indicates that older adults with dementia have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than those without dementia, and, once infected, have a high risk of disease-related morbidity and mortality.

Additionally, the evidence indicates that people with dementia have an increased risk of viral infection. A poor immune response to infection places individuals at an increased risk of dementia.  

This population is often the first to go into, and the last to come out of, strict and prolonged periods of isolation to prevent COVID-19 infection. Studies have demonstrated that this population is at extremely high risk of worsening neuropsychiatric symptoms and severe behavioral disturbance as a direct result.

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