Love bears all things … and never ends
Don Neyer was a shy young man in his early 20s when he spotted the pretty teller at the bank in downtown Cincinnati where he made his business deposits.
Her name then was Phyllis Holthaus. The year was 1952. Neyer worked nearby and finally one day got the courage to ask her out.
They hit it off.
A 63-year tapestry
“It was obvious that I liked her, and she liked me. We also liked each other’s value systems,” Don, 87, recalled during a recent interview. Two months after their first date, they were engaged. Seven months later, they were married.
Sixty-three years passed before Don and Phyllis were separated. On July 2, 2016, Phyllis died after suffering from an aggressive form of dementia for the last 10 years of her life. By the end, the illness had robbed Phyllis of her ability to speak and understand conversations.
But her love and concern for Don never wavered.
“She’d smile whenever she saw me,” Don said. “She’d give me a kiss. She was very emotionally involved. She may not have been able to talk, but she communicated with her eyes and with her expressions.”
Caregiving and prayer giving
About five and a half years ago, Don and Phyllis Neyer moved into Twin Lakes, a senior living community in Montgomery, Ohio. Not too long after that, with her disease rapidly progressing, Phyllis had to be moved into a specialized care unit.
But Don never left her side. For the last three and a half years of her life, Don would be alongside his wife everyday to make sure she was properly cared for. He fed her, bathed her, brushed her hair, and performed any task he could to ensure she was taken care of.
Every night, Don would say some prayers as Phyllis closed her eyes and listened before going to sleep. Don said caring for his wife was never a chore.
“It wasn’t difficult at all,” Don said. “I was happy to be with her.”
Don’s steadfast devotion to Phyllis moved many of the Twin Lakes staff. His example inspired the Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio to name Don as its Caregiver of the Year in 2016.
“I think Christ came to give us two words: Love all and serve all. And if you’re working for the good of others, as opposed to working for the good of yourself, you feel good about what you’re doing,” said Don, a charter member of Legatus’ Cincinnati Chapter.
Jim Mayer, the executive director at Twin Lakes, said Don was “the pinnacle” of a true caregiver.
“He was the real definition of a spouse who was there for better or for worse,” Mayer said. “He cared for her. He was there for her every day.” Don would escort his wife in her wheelchair down the hallways of her building. Every Wednesday, he accompanied her to Mass and would hold up the missalette so Phyllis could see it during the liturgy.
“I feel she’s happy now in Heaven,” Don said.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors in the United States dies from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. As the national population of people over age 65 increases, the number of new cases of Alzheimer’s and other dementias is projected to soar.
Don said he began noticing the early signs of Phyllis’ dementia about 12 years ago, when she began forgetting some things and having difficulty making routine decisions. She used to enjoy daily walks with a friend, but if someone she didn’t know came along, she would want to go home because she could not follow the conversation.
“She stopped talking on the phone about 10 years ago,” Don said. “It was a progressive disease, but the last five years of her life it was just very severe.”
Phyllis’ dementia left her unable to understand when their youngest son died of a brain tumor about two and a half years ago. Don recalled breaking down in tears after receiving a phone call shortly after their son died. Phyllis saw Don crying and rubbed his arm in sympathy.
Family generosity … and her Notebook
Don and Phyllis raised eight children. The house was always bustling with activity, but Don and Phyllis made it a priority to eat dinner as a family and to instill Catholic values into their kids.
Phyllis was the more patient parent, teaching their kids how to ride bicycles even though she never learned to ride herself.
“She’d run alongside them, encouraging them. She was just very calm about things, and I’ve always been hyper about things,” said Don, who a few months ago found a notebook that Phyllis saved in which she kept a detailed journal of the family’s daily activities over a 17-year period.
“Her whole life was wrapped around me and our kids,” Don said. “She was very family oriented, and she would spend all of her waking hours doing what she could for the benefit of her family.”
Don and Phyllis enjoyed playing bridge with friends. On weekends, they would go to their lakeside cottage outside Cincinnati to spend time together. For several years, they also enjoyed their monthly date nights at their chapter’s Legatus meetings.
When Phyllis died, Don said all the activities and committees that he is involved with at Twin Lakes helped him to grieve. He became really emotional when a granddaughter got married last December on the day before what would have been Phyllis’ 85th birthday.
“Then it really begins to hit you,” Don said.
Still putting gifts to work
Mayer, the executive director of Twin Lakes, said Don is involved in several of the community’s committees and initiatives, including a $50 million construction project. That task is a good fit for Don, who ran his family’s construction business for several decades before retiring in 1994.
“He’s the best construction manager in the world who is not paid,” Mayer said. “It’s like having a free consultant on staff.”
Showing that an octogenarian can be up to date on technology, Don will often take out an iPhone to schedule appointments and update his calendar. Mayer said he is always prepared for committee meetings.
“I feel like we’re cheating him by not paying him. He’s such a good guy,” said Mayer, who joked that other Twin Lakes staff members, when faced with difficult choices, will ask themselves, “What would Don Neyer do?”
“Because he always does the right thing,” Mayer said. “Don helps, assists and cares about everyone; the infirm, those with dementia, the well-informed, the affluent, the poor. I’m blessed that he lives here at Twin Lakes.”
Fruitful branches, everlasting comfort
Don said he tries to keep busy while also keeping in regular contact with his family. Collectively, Don and Phyllis have 32 grandchildren and 16 grandchildren. Several of Don and Phyllis’ children have been married for more than 20 or 30 years.
Don does not hesitate to say Phyllis was the love of his life.
“She had a wonderful value system, and I loved her for that,” Don said. “I loved her for everything she had. She was a wonderful person. I was very blessed.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.