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'Healing Touch' Stories Portray Loss and Laughter

May 31, 2008 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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One day in 1994, Lee Duff, a school administrator in Maine, came home and couldn't find his wife, Ann. When she finally walked through the door, she had a puzzled, anxious look on her face and told him, "Funny thing just happened. I couldn't remember how to get home."

The account of Ann Duff's slow decline into Alzheimer's and her husband's devotion is among the stories in A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death, and Hospice, a new book from Down East Books edited by Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of Empire Falls.

Russo, who played racquetball with Lee Duff, says that when Alzheimer's strikes someone who is relatively young, the decline is steep and fairly rapid. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that the Duffs' ordeal was "horrific."

Racquetball for Lee became "kind of an oasis ... to hit a ball and hit it as hard as you can," Russo says, speaking from Colby College in Maine. The author likens it to "draining the poison."

The Duffs' story is about the loss of identity, of watching a loved one turn into a veritable stranger. "When you begin to lose yourself," Russo says, "the caregiver begins to run the risk of losing some of himself, too."

Russo says Lee Duff knew he needed help caring for his wife or he would be in grave danger himself. He sought out in-home caregivers before eventually placing her in a facility that could provide around-the-clock care.

Ann Duff lost her battle with Alzheimer's after about nine years.

In A Healing Touch, Russo and five fellow authors — Gerry Boyle, Wesley McNair, Bill Roorbach, Susan Sterling and Monica Wood — crafted portraits of people who have passed through hospice care in and around Waterville, Maine.

One of the biggest surprises for Russo and the other contributors was that the book they thought would be about loss and grief turned out to be about life, with lots of laughter and joy.

"I think for the people who told us their stories and for people who read this book, they're going to come to the conclusion that whatever it is that they may be going through right now, they're not alone," Russo says.

Lee Duff, he says, now counsels Alzheimer's patients and caregivers.

Sales of the book will benefit the Hospice Volunteers of the Waterville Area.

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