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Remembering Don Ford, a former Penn State dean who used a 'person over patient' model to care for his wife through Alzheimer's

Don Ford
Courtesy of the Ford family
Don Ford died on May 8, 2023, at the age of 96.

Don Ford founded Penn State’s College of Human Development (now the College of Health and Human Development) in 1967 and served as its dean for a decade. He was also a clinical psychologist and devoted husband.

Ford died on May 8, 2023, at the age of 96.

Now-retired WPSU reporter Patty Satalia interviewed him in 2010 for a series called “Pennsylvania People.” She visited Ford at his house to interview him toward the end of the decade he spent as a caregiver to his wife Carol.

Here's that story, with sound of Don, Carol and Pam Ford interacting in italics:

Don Ford 

Whaddaya say, Kiddo? That's it. Walk over here toward me. That's the way. Now we're gonna take a turn step. That's it. And you can back up. And there you go.

Patty Satalia 

That's Don Ford of State College, deftly helping his wife Carol transition from one wheelchair to another. At 84 he's compact and agile, with a thick crop of white hair and twinkling blue eyes framed behind large wire-rimmed glasses.

After a quick trip to the bathroom, Linda, a specially trained LPN, pushes Carol to the dining room table. Daughter-in-law, Pam Ford, who lives down the street, has just arrived for a scheduled coffee break.

Don Ford 

Do you want some coffee?

Pam Ford 

If you've got some. Good morning. That's a Christmas tablecloth them for you. And I brought one down that you had made for me when Doug and I first got married.

Patty Satalia 

Ford wears two hats. He's a clinical psychologist by training and a family caregiver. Pam's visit is one of numerous episodes intended not only to reach certain goals, but also to keep life interesting for Carol, his wife of 62 years. In 2001, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Don Ford 

At a practical level, that means that her communicative abilities are grossly limited from Alzheimer's, and her motor skills are grossly limited from Parkinson's. Except for that she's extremely healthy.

We have gone into a pattern of home care so that we could maintain an environment in which she was still a person rather than a patient. So we have designed a life that capitalizes on what she has left, we have aides in the morning for five hours. And otherwise, we take care of one another.

The secret is that there has to be a reason to live every day. And so you look for activities that can bring some meaning and pleasure. So every day, there are things we do aimed at producing some kind of result. Like playing balloon ball, which functions as a game, but also provide certain kinds of physical activity to maintain what physical skill she still has.

Patty Satalia 

One of the challenges was getting someone with Carol's limitations to walk. Ford, who created Penn State's College of Health and Human Development in the late 1960s with help from his wife, had an idea.

Don Ford 

Ready? This is one you always liked, and I had always liked, too.

So I decided, since she loved the dance, that we would put on big band music and go into a dancing position with one another, the kind where you hold on to one another. You're capturing a long history of motor movements that were pleasurable. It's easier to activate those, than to say, "Now, I want you to walk."

You got the rhythm. We got the rhythm.

So that's worked pretty well. We'll dance from here, to garden. And in that process, there are two sets of steps for her to go up and down. That illustrates how you can design activities so they're personally meaningful – bring some pleasure – and yet perform a health promotion function.

Patty Satalia 

What advice do you have for other families who were in the same situation, but dealing with it very, very differently than you and Carol are?

Don Ford 

That's almost an impossible question to answer, because with each family's personal history and the relationships among them are different. But the starting point is they have to decide what they want. Life is organized to accomplish goals. It's that simple. So to talk about how people might handle things is to imply that there is a single way everybody should do it. And there isn't. You have to start with what you have. Given that starting point, if a family wants to try to do home care then it's useful to try to get some help and understanding what they might do.

The fact is that most of the places that provide home care help, don't know how to do this. And most all of them are working with a medical model. And the trouble with a medical model of caring for elderly people is the whole focus is on what they're losing and how do you fix it. And that's, of course, just the wrong side of the coin, because life doesn't mean anything.

Patty Satalia 

If Ford's life seems heroic and full of self-sacrifice, he says it's not. He is a devoted husband and also a dedicated clinician. What he and Carol are doing, he says, is both an experiment and a demonstration of how a developmental model might work for others. Too often, he says, people in Carol's situation end up looking at a wall or watching meaningless television and caregivers burnout.

Don Ford 

My circumstances are a little different because I built a college focused on these kinds of things. I'm a clinical psychologist. So I have a background that most people don't have.

And so the reason I have aides here in the morning is that creates a time period when I can do something that produces those things for me. So I have designed this to honor the fact that caregivers need to have something that is them.

But this isn't new for us. This is the way Carol and I have lived our life. When she was doing all her artwork, I would organize my time to support that. And she would do the reverse when something that I had to do was involved. And when you lead your life that way, it's fairly easy to do what we're doing now because that just is a continuation of our pattern of life.

Patty Satalia 

So it was a love affair and a partnership.

Don Ford 

Yes. And still is.

Okay. Here, you want to start with a bite of cinnamon cracker? Here you go.

The theme for this place is, she's a person not a patient.

Right? Yeah. We usually start with a sip of milk to get things going. There you go. That's good.

Patty Satalia was a senior producer/host for WPSU-TV and FM from 1987 to 2017. Prior to joining Penn State Public Broadcasting, she worked in commercial television in Pittsburgh, first as a film editor and fill-in capsule news anchor for WPGH-TV, and later, for WPTT-TV as public affairs director and co-host of the talk-show, People, Places and Things.