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Dave Olson, Published June 21 2010

Transitions: Sacrificing to stay together

Merlyn and Shirlee Valan are in the same Moorhead nursing home for very different reasons, save for one: They love each other.

Merlyn, who is 83, lost a leg several years ago to arterial disease and now needs skilled nursing care.

Shirlee, just a tad younger, has Alzheimer’s, which is robbing her of her ability to remember things.

For Shirlee, life would be more comfortable in the apartment-like setting she recently moved from, a memory-care unit at Moorhead’s Eventide that according to her son, Matt, provided her with the camaraderie of a college dorm.

Merlyn would receive greater mental stimulation outside of the Alzheimer’s care unit he lives in, but it would mean he could not be with his wife.

“They each said, ‘We’re willing to make sacrifices to live together,’ ” said Matt Valan, who a number of years ago began helping his parents transition away from their rural Moorhead home and into places that offered increasing levels of care.

A journey together

For the Valans, that has meant an ongoing journey with Eventide in Moorhead.

Matt Valan, pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Moorhead, said the Fargo-Moorhead area is blessed with a large number of high-quality elder-care choices.

“We always had this smorgasbord of options,” Valan said, adding that when he began helping his parents navigate changes in their lives, he made sure to include them in decisions whenever possible.

“I bet my dad’s made six decisions along the way; each time has meant more care. Even when he couldn’t communicate, just a nod was important,” Matt Valan said.

Now, the family is facing another big step.

“We’re in the middle of that wilderness of maybe having to make that move to medical assistance,” Matt Valan said.

Whether it is his parents or older members of his congregation, Valan said it is difficult for people who have been self-sufficient their entire lives to come to terms with the cost of long-term care, which for many means the government foots the bill after personal assets have been exhausted.

“Here’s what I tell my parishioners and my own parents: ‘You have worked. You have given. You’ve paid into the system,’ ’’ Matt Valan said, stressing that the sooner families start talking about long-term care options, the more smoothly things go.

Matter of trust

Matt Valan said he never felt closer to his father than the day about 10 years ago when his dad asked him to accept durable power of attorney, just in case something happened.

That something turned out to be arterial disease, and when Merlyn Valan became ill and doctors needed to amputate his leg, the permission to do the operation came from his son, Matt.

The incident was foreshadowed by an incident earlier in Merlyn’s life.

The longtime Moorhead farmer and former state legislator said he was working on his family’s farm when a hired hand needed to have a limb amputated.

With his parents gone, Valan said the doctor required a signature and there was no one else but him to give the go-ahead.

“You know something? That man lived for another 20 years,” said Valan, adding that while he likes his new home at Eventide in south Moorhead, it is very different from living on the farm, where daily conversation often revolved around things like the weather.

“You lose track of time; you even lose track of seasons,” he said. “When I was on the farm, that was the No. 1 subject: ‘How much rain did you have?’ They could care less about that around here.”

Then, looking at his wife sitting nearby, Merlyn Valan smiled a smile that seemed to confirm for him that rain and crops aren’t the only priorities in life.

“To me, love is the most important thing,” he said, adding that he got “pretty hot under the collar” when treatment for his physical problems kept him apart from Shirlee for stretches of time.

“I feel real fortunate that Shirlee and I have been able to live together this long,” he said.

His wife smiled a smile that showed the feeling was mutual.

“I’ll go wherever he goes,” Shirlee Valan said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555