Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘God’s Great Outdoors’: Navy Vet Takes Air Force Vet Mom on Epic Tour of 20 States

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The 96-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran says she is ‘humbled by the beauty and greatness” of the country

A retired Navy nurse took her 95-year-old mother, a U.S. Air Force veteran diagnosed with dementia, on a 26,000-mile adventure across the United States. Together, they passed through 70 cities in 20 states, collecting stories and experiences like none they’d had before.

Teresa Lee McFarland of Lone Pine, California, is 63 years old. She retired as a Navy Nurse Corps Commander and family nurse practitioner in 2020 to care for her mother, Norma Lee Lamascus, full time. Norma, who celebrated her 96th birthday on the tour, was once a registered nurse and served two years with the U.S. Air Force between 1952 and 1954.

The mom-daughter pair have since returned home from their over 10-month-long trailer tour of a lifetime and are planning to travel again, starting in July. The best part, after all this traveling, is that Norma’s dementia scores have improved.

“[I feel] humbled by the beauty and greatness of our big country,” she told The Epoch Times. “I learned that life is wonderful, and that I can still enjoy God’s great outdoors at my age! Life is for living. Every moment can be a wonderful adventure if you look for it.”

Teresa added: “I learned that, with God’s help, there isn’t really anything we can’t do. I also learned that most strangers are kind and generous.”

Teresa (L) and Norma at London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Arizona. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
Norma standing next to the 400-foot-tall American Flag in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Visiting this place was Norma’s “favorite thing” on the tour, according to Teresa. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
‘I Want to See the People I love Before I Die’
Norma moved in with Teresa in March 2018 when she could no longer afford to keep up her home in Oceanside, California, and needed help with chores. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and life grew even harder.

“The forced isolation and travel restrictions shut down her social life,” Teresa said. “She couldn’t go to visit her dearest friends living near her former home, and five of her new friends died. Needless to say, she became despondent with grief.”

Norma told her daughter, “I want to see the people I love before I die!”

Teresa was determined to make it happen.

In October 2020, she bought a 2011 2WD Toyota Tacoma and 17-foot 1985 Aljo Aly pull trailer to fix up. Teresa oversaw the modifications herself, raising the seats 3 inches for accessibility, adding hand grips, a new heater and window, and updating the decor. By March 2021, the revamped trailer, nicknamed “Blessing,” boasted a fully functional kitchen, bathroom with shower, sleeping spaces, and a brand-new look.

“I did everything but the heater myself,” she said.

Teresa and Norma with their tour trailer, nicknamed “Blessing.” (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
Norma outside the trailer. Her daughter affectionately addresses her as “a super hero” for her resilient spirit and love for life. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
With Norma fully on board, Teresa plotted a route using paper maps and an old U.S. Road Atlas to include visits to old friends, family, and even DNA relatives whom Norma had discovered through DNA testing but never met. The pair chronicled their epic trip on a dedicated Facebook page, Norma’s 95: Big Adventure.

With a preference for quiet rural spots and natural beauty, Teresa made reservations at campgrounds ahead of each pit stop. She found military base campgrounds especially welcoming, and says life on the road was both “fun and challenging.”

“I did all of the trip planning, packing, shopping, cooking, laundry, driving and towing, set-up and take down for the trailer,” Teresa said. “My goal was to drive less than five hours each day, stop before dark, and stay at least two days at each stop. At this pace, we could both enjoy the journey all along the way.

“We remained flexible and didn’t plan ahead too much so we could accommodate unexpected mishaps, like a flat tire, and take advantage of any surprise opportunities that showed up: the public art murals, sculptures, mosaic-tiled automobiles, riverside walking paths, swimming pools, community concerts, spontaneous dancing in the grass, and the amazing beauty of God’s creation.”

Cadet Nurse Norma Lee, in Denver, Colorado, in 1943. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
Student Nurse Norma Lee (R), at the Visiting Nurse Association, in Denver, Colorado. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
Making Memories
In over 10 months, with four oil changes and four new tires along the way, Teresa and her mother visited 20 U.S. states: California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

In their home state of California, Norma visited her childhood best friend since Kindergarten at Scotts Valley. In St. Louis, Missouri, the pair visited Teresa’s sister; Norma met her latest great-grandson for the first time in Crystal City.

Colorado heralded a nostalgic meeting.

“Norma enjoyed seeing three of her nursing classmates from 1946,” said Teresa, “and we went to Presbyterian Saint Luke’s Hospital to see if there was any interest in Norma, a 1946 graduate of the Denver Saint Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing; they gave Norma a wonderful book filled with photos and detailed history of the hospital.”

In her hometown of Lewellen, Nebraska, Norma reunited with family and old friends and met her first DNA relative, a 94-year-old third cousin, for the very first time.

As the tour progressed, they kept adding new memories to their book of life.

Norma (C) with 100-year-old Jim Patterson, her first boyfriend, and his wife in Oshkosh, Nebraska. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
Norma (L) with an old friend, “Muggy” Delores, whom she used to babysit in Lewellen, Nebraska. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
Norma (R) with her childhood friend Betty in nursing home. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
The pair also made ample time for day trips, including Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, the Minneapolis Zoo, where Norma fulfilled a lifelong wish to ride a camel, and Sheboygan’s 400-foot-tall American flag.

They spent the holidays in Lake Havasu City, enjoying London Bridge, walking in the cactus garden, and taking the ferry to Christmas dinner at the casino. “The Arizona sunsets still warm our memories,” said Teresa.

Norma celebrated her 96th birthday in Meridian, Idaho. And in Cascade, 15 family members spanning in age from 7 to 96 hosted “Camp Grandma” for the nonagenarian birthday girl.

Norma (R) with Agnes, her 1946 nursing school classmate. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
Norma (C) with her nephew Barney and niece Suzie at the Minneapolis Zoo. Suzie was later diagnosed with cancer and died 2 months after the meeting. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
The Conscientious Daughter
Teresa first noticed warning signs of dementia in her mother in November 2019.

Norma had trouble problem-solving, did not use logical reasoning, and was forgetting more frequently; she had difficulty following directions of more than two steps, repeated questions already answered, and said the same things over and over again. Less active physically, her social life declined.

Unable to drop to a part-time schedule, Teresa retired to become her mother’s full-time caretaker. Ironically, she believes Norma herself might have invented the “assisted living” model we know today during her career as a nurse. Teresa said: “In 1968, [my mother] bought a too-large house to provide a home like ‘board and care’ to elderly men and women who needed help with their medication, laundry, and meals. Otherwise they were independent and on their own. The health and fire inspectors weren’t sure what to do with her, as this type of care was otherwise unheard of.”

Well-versed in Norma’s needs by the time the trailer was ready, Teresa made sure their trip was accessible. Norma uses a four-wheeled rolling walker for stability, quickly runs out of steam due to heart failure and COPD, and cannot stand without support for more than a few seconds.

Norma. (Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
It was Norma’s job to inspect every new campground for adequate bathroom facilities, said Teresa, while she set up the trailer for each stay. The thoughtful daughter carried three portable suction grab bars, a shower stool, and a hand-held shower spray with wrenches, just in case they needed them.

But during their travels, Teresa noticed that even Norma’s transport chair was too flimsy to handle the uneven trails and river walks they hoped to explore. She found a $4,000 all-terrain chair from France online, but was reluctant to commit without trying it first. Then she came across an advocacy group that provides running pushchairs for disabled athletes.

“This contact led me to Mike DiDonato of Southbridge Tool and Manufacturing in Massachusetts,” said Teresa. “He offered to let us borrow a blade running chair with trail wheels for as long as we needed it, all we had to pay was the shipping costs.”

Teresa believes that when one is faced with problems or challenges, it’s important to be curious and to ask others for ideas and whatever help they can offer, and “be persistent to find a solution.”

Help was never far away. When Norma contracted a painful ear infection in Minnesota, they visited a local urgent-care facility with a prescription vending machine in the waiting room, getting the antibiotics they needed in the middle of the night. The Traveling Veterans Program looked after Norma throughout her recovery.

Even the trailer suffered a few health issues as the trip went on, but Teresa saved the day. She recalled: “Once the weather started to get colder in Tennessee, some of the trailer’s old pipes became frozen. I solved this issue by placing small portable heaters inside the bathroom cabinet.”

(Courtesy of Teresa McFarland)
After 10 months on the road with now-96-year-old Norma, Teresa feels proud of her mother for her enduring adventurous spirit, proud of herself for making the trip happen, despite obstacles, and grateful that they ignored the naysayers.

“I learned that enjoying the present is an incredible gift to myself and those around me,” Teresa reflected.

Concerned about her mother’s memory and mental health, Teresa recently got Norma’s thorough neuro-cognitive assessment done. The results were surprising. “Her score had actually improved from January 2021,” Teresa said. “I am convinced that the mental stimulation, social experiences, and travel to new places actually improved her mental function!”

Teresa, who is a member of the VA Caregiver Support Network, implores other caregivers to find support from people who understand and empathize. The “frank, funny, steady, reliable” friends in her virtual support group have made caregiving possible for Teresa, and thriving possible for Norma at 96.

“I encourage everyone to experience an adventure every day. This is important for young and old. It makes all of life much richer, fuller, and more fun,” Teresa said.

“I’m forever grateful we took this trip.”

Arshdeep Sarao contributed to this report.

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