John Wood’s love for people and for God, evident in his creative ministry, impacted hundreds of students and families in his nine years as junior high pastor at Rolling Hills Covenant Church – and many others since then. Now he has an early-onset dementia entering the moderately severe stage, and he needs to move into an assisted-living facility, which is not covered by health insurance. His wife, Susan, is applying for a California program that funds assisted-living, but approval can take 6 months or more, and they might not be approved. In the meantime, you can help John and Susan with this need.
If you don’t know their journey since they left Rolling Hills, he was an associate pastor in Minnesota, then completed ordination studies at North Park Seminary. From 1990 to 2000 he pastored the Covenant church in Rosemead, CA, where he partnered with a Hispanic pastor to combine the Anglo congregation and a Spanish house church. Susan earned an MDiv from Fuller Seminary and worked there part time, and they adopted their daughter, Charissa. After 2000, they unsuccessfully sought a Covenant church where they could co-pastor, John worked in other areas, and he pastored an independent church for a short time. He was teaching seminars for the National Notary Association until they “restructured him out of a job” in 2008.
In 2008 John had some trouble finding the words he wanted; in 2009 he had difficulty following conversations, and then forgot things like closing the car door parked on the street or picking up Charissa from school. Susan wondered if he was depressed, being out of work. He began a full-time hospital chaplaincy internship in fall of 2009, and while presenting a verbatim in a group session, he completely froze mentally, unable to speak at all. His supervisor required that he get a neurological assessment. The various brain scans showed nothing, leading to a diagnosis of primary progressive aphasia in 2010. After a PET scan, a specialist at UCLA confirmed and fine-tuned that diagnosis: he had a rare type of early-onset dementia. The physical pathology is the same as Alzheimer’s, but the early-onset form initially affects only a specific part of the brain. For John it was language processing: logopenic progressive aphasia. Prognosis: he would gradually lose all language ability over the 5-10 years after onset (2008) and eventually the dementia would affect more and more of his brain, until end-stage Alzheimer’s.
In 2010, John could communicate one-on-one, but not follow conversations with more than one other person. Now he understands almost nothing spoken to him. John retained the ability to read longer than understanding speech, so for the last year communication meant writing a simple, concrete sentence. Now he might slowly read a sentence aloud, but often not comprehend the meaning. He can’t write anything coherent. He can still speak, but rarely on topic. He often can’t finish his sentences, and his speech is getting more and more garbled. Susan can’t understand half of what he says now.
John’s health is good. Only in the last year has this begun to affect his fine motor skills and gait. But since the last October, he’s had some paranoid episodes, gets confused easily, and every week seems to display some distressing new symptom or loss of function. The first two years after diagnosis were the worst for him, terrified at what was happening and crushed by the loss of identity: “I’m a pastor! What do pastors do? Listen and talk!” Yet John and Susan had some excellent counseling and have had tremendous care and support from friends at Pasadena Covenant Church. For many months different friends spent a few hours with him each week and later provided “companion care.” For a few months John enjoyed a group daycare program; now he has a caregiver from an agency with him for 6 hrs/day, 5 days/wk. Susan gained a full-time position at Fuller a few years ago: Technical Editor and Writer in the Communications & Marketing Department. They allow her flexible hours, usually 5 at Fuller and 3 at home each day.
Charissa just finished her junior year at North Park University, a double major in history and political science with plans to go to law school. Right now she’s in Oaxaca, Mexico, for 4 weeks of Spanish language study; when she comes back she’ll work at Alpine as a “tribal leader” at Makuala.
Susan says, “Life is hard and life is good – and God is good. Coping with John’s decline is becoming an even greater burden on me now though: his confusion, the uncertainty of how he’ll react to a caregiver or any changed situation, my being responsible for managing everything and anticipating his needs, not to mention his following me around and inability to follow any directions, even given with gestures.” She hopes to move him into a memory-care facility in walking distance from Fuller within the next few months. Currently their family, church, and the non-profit We Encourage help with the cost of homecare. The monthly cost for the desired facility will be $1,000 more than the current homecare (which Susan might be able to cover by resuming freelance copyediting work). “However our needs are met,” she says, “I trust that God will provide.”