Karleen C. Chinen
“Hey, Boss Lady . . .” That’s how Frances Kakugawa starts off her emails to me. She knows my name, but she insists on calling me “Boss Lady,” like I’m her luna or something. But she’s not fooling me — I know that she is the real “Boss Lady,” because her columns and poems always leave me feeling like I’m a million bucks richer, even if I only have a dollar to my name.
As I write this, Frances is on the island of Maui, speaking to caregivers at a session organized by Maui County’s Office on Aging.
One-by-one, with each talk she gives, each caregivers’ support group she participates in, each poetry workshop she leads, an army is being built to battle “the thief” — Alzheimer’s and other memory-related illnesses.
Frances is one of those transformative individuals who are changing our approach to Alzheimer’s disease and caregiving, in general. I remember the first time I heard her speak — it was at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. Tears rolled down my face as I listened to her stories of caring for her mother, Matsue Kakugawa, during her five-year-long journey with Alzheimer’s. She did it with chutzpah, with humor, with love and respect, with compassion. Her response to every experience she shared once she had come to understand Alzheimer’s evil ways was an epiphany. And because she was speaking not from a textbook developed in an ivory tower, but from the perspective of someone who had been there and done it all, we trusted her words. Through her examples, she showed us that love and compassion and perseverance, spiced with humor and writing, can help us make it through.
My biggest takeaway from Frances was this thought with which she began every morning with her mother: “This could be the last day of her life. And if this is so, how can I not help to make this the best day of her life?”
Can you imagine starting your every morning with that thought and how it could affect your every response to what probably would be a stressful day? Our loved ones never asked to have Alzheimer’s invade their minds. So why add to the indignity of their loss of self by blurting out hurtful words at them?
Here’s another bit of wisdom that Frances shared in a 2013 piece for the Herald: “We communicate not only through words, but through our tone of voice, loud sighs, gritting of teeth, smiles in our voices, our perceptions and in our silence,” she reminded us.
“The disease will be what it is no matter what we do or don’t do. I chose to make it a creative journey based on compassion and dignity and a lot of humor.”
This issue — the Herald’s third addressing the subject of caring for loved ones afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related illnesses — would not have been possible without the editorial contributions of Frances Kakugawa, Kevin Kawamoto, Diane Ako, Jody Mishan and Watermark Publishing. Their desire to help ease the journey for caregivers, present and future, is nothing short of admirable, and we thank them sincerely. We also thank our advertisers for supporting this issue and for sharing information on their services and facilities with our readers. They, too, will be of value when and if our loved ones need their help.