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About Grandma Bonnie 

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Growing Up

Bonnie Sullivant is the baby of three girls born to Odell and Nettie Napier. Bonnie was born on October 21, 1931. Bonnie and her sisters, Nondes and Jean, grew up helping on the family farm in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Some of their experiences on the farm have been preserved through stories that were told and retold through the years, including several favorites: Jean sticking a pin in a cow's udder to see if milk would come out, Nondes riding on the back of a momma pig, and Bonnie accidently feeding fertilizer to the chickens. These stories never grew old, even if we had heard them 100 times. 

After graduating high school, Bonnie worked for the telephone company in West Plains, Missouri. At the age of 19, she married Norval Sullivant in Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, on June 2, 1951. Norval, a soldier in the United States Army, left home soon after the wedding to serve in the Korean War, which was in progress. Norval became a Purple Heart Recipient for injuries suffered during the war. After returning home, he worked as a foreman at International Shoe Factory in West Plains.

Raising a Family and Starting a Business

Norval and Bonnie were not able to have children of their own, but their desire to become parents was fulfilled through adoption. They adopted their first child, Dirk, in 1964 in West Plains. A business opportunity took Norval and Bonnie and son, Dirk, to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where they became owners of a shoe store. While living and working in Ponca City, the couple received a call from a social worker at Deaconess Hospital asking if they would like to adopt a baby girl. Norval and Bonnie said "yes" to this offer without hesitation, and this is where my story joined theirs.  I was born on May 22, 1967. Norval and Bonnie took me home from the hospital as their adoptive daughter. My earliest years were spent in Ponca City, and a second Oklahoma town called El Reno, where we lived briefly before my parents decided it was time to get back home to Missouri. I was six years old when we left Oklahoma behind and came to Missouri, where my parents would stay for good. Norval and Bonnie opened their own shoe store business on the square in West Plains. It was called Sullivant Shoes.

 

Bonnie's biggest interests included church and gathering with family and friends. Bonnie loves the Lord and was very involved in First Baptist Church. She sang in the church choir until macular degeneration made it too difficult for her to see the words on her music. Bonnie was also one of the founding members of BGS (Birthday Girls Society). Norval "lovingly" called it "Bad Girls School". A continuation of this group still meets today in West Plains. 

 

Bonnie also valued time with her extended family. Gathering with her sisters, and other relatives, provided opportunities for all the cousins to play and get into mischief. One of my favorite memories is climbing Uncle Charles's sawdust pile at his sawmill. My mom and her sisters never seemed to be bothered by all the messes that accompanied our adventures. At that point in time, playing and exploring outside was how kids grew up.

Retirement and Grandchildren

Bonnie and Norval kept the doors of Sullivant Shoes open until the early 1980's. After the store closed, Bonnie transitioned to other jobs, including working for the Howell County Clerk's Office and helping manage the S-Mart Convenience Store, owned by Norval's brother, David Sullivant, and his wife, Linda. Norval and Bonnie loved traveling and exploring. It was not a big deal for them to wake up, hop in the car, and drive a hundred miles or so just to eat somewhere and come home. The best part of their lives, however, was spending time with their three grandchildren: Jesse, Grace, and Sam Pietroburgo. Norval and Bonnie loved each one deeply. Jesse, Grace, and Sam were their whole world. They made many trips to St. Louis to see them while we lived there from 1996-2009; they also welcomed them for visits to their farm in West Plains.

 

As Bonnie and Norval aged, so did their physical abilities. Norval began to express concern about Bonnie not remembering things well before signs of her dementia became apparent to the rest of the family; however, his own health needs would take precedence over hers. In order to be available to them as their needs grew more significant, my family moved to West Plains in July of 2009. Two years later we became their next-door neighbors.  They moved from their existing three-bedroom home into a newly constructed one-bedroom home on the same property tract and gave us the house that they left behind. The years spent next door to one another are priceless. The bonds between our children and my parents deepened considerably; in addition, the children were able to be involved directly in their grandparents' care. Although Norval's mobility gradually diminished, he spent hours teaching his grandchildren to hunt, fix motor bikes, and solve the problems of the day; many of his lessons were taught from the living room recliner where most of his waking hours were passed. Grandpa Norval died of congestive heart failure at the age of 85 on May 3, 2014.

Bonnie Without Norval

Bonnie became very lonely and depressed without Norval. Her thinking and reasoning began to show signs of significant decline from the stress. Her participation in social functions and groups, such as the Birthday Girls Society, dropped off. Even though our family lived next door, and we spent lots of time together, there were still long days when Bonnie was alone while we were away at work and school. As her dementia progressed, the boundary line between reality and fantasy blurred. Hallucinations became more real than the things and people in her surrounding environment. For example, she became convinced that a new communication technology had been developed that allowed her to hear other people speaking to her through air vents in the floor. She also described imaginary things that she could see, with insistence that they were real: little people building furniture in the trees, Superman flying in the sky, and strings coming out of her body. 

The Breaking Point

Sam was our only child still living at home when Bonnie's dementia became complicated with hallucinations. It was his senior year of high school. Sam was a member of the school's soccer team and soccer season was in full swing. Phil and I did not want to miss attending his activities, including his team's soccer games. We began to pay people to watch my mom while we were at work during the day. We also asked friends to stay with her in the evenings on soccer game nights. Bonnie was no longer safe to be left alone. We put alarms on the exterior doors of her home because every day she would pack her suitcase to leave on a trip or tell us that she was getting married. One night she even made it up to a neighbor's back porch near the highway. She would no longer listen to us about showering, eating, taking her medications and other essential matters. She thought we were poisoning her. On September 2, 2019, my husband and I made the decision to take my mom to a geriatric psychological hospital. She was admitted and the psychiatrist stated, "Your mom's dementia is one of the worst I have seen." 

 

Because her hallucinations and wandering made it impossible for us to keep her safe at home, we made arrangements to move her from the geriatric psychological facility to a care home. It was one of the hardest decisions we have ever made, but we knew it was the right choice for her. 

Grandma Bonnie's Final Years

Grandma Bonnie started at Brooke Haven Health Care in September 2019. Bonnie became more stable with the medications prescribed for her by the geriatric psychological facility that preceded her move to Brooke Haven. She was even able to move from the memory care unit, her initial placement at Brooke Haven, to a regular hall. I have come to see that every family has to make their own decisions in these situations. There is not a universal right or wrong answer for every dementia patient's care. There are so many individualized factors to consider. The safety and care of my mom were the most important factors for us, and we were not able to provide for these on our own 24/7. In-home caregivers were difficult to find, and agencies could not guarantee that they would even have workers available when we needed them. 

A care home should never be viewed merely as a place to leave someone. Negative perceptions about care homes neglect the positive purposes that they serve.  For loved ones like Grandma Bonnie, they offer the resources necessary for safe 24-hour care that may not be feasible elsewhere, including at home. Every staff member (i.e. nurse, CNA, LPN, cook, social worker, hairdresser), is part of each resident's care team.

 

I made the choice to stay actively involved in my mom's care. I picked her up almost every afternoon so that she could have dinner with our family at home. When I saw problems at the care home, I worked on resolving them peacefully with the staff, because I still remembered how hard it was to be a full-time caregiver at my own home. As Bonnie continued to decline, we remained committed to involving her in stimulating activities. My mom passed away on November 3, 2023. She is now in her heavenly home and dementia free.

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