ESCANABA - Crocheting is a favorite pastime for Loyola Gardner of Escanaba. So is dancing - particularly the polka.
"So what's so special about Loyola?" you ask. Those are things that many women do - even when they are in their 80s.
But 85-year-old Loyola is a rarity. Not because she loves to crochet and dance. It's because she's able to live alone and enjoy a variety of activities even though she's completely blind.
Senior Companion Cheryl Corbiere, left, spends three afternoons a week with her Companion, Loyola Gardner. The pair were brought together in June and “hit it off” immediately. (Daily Press photo by Dorothy McKnight)
Loyola suffers from macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, both progressive eye diseases that eventually lead to blindness.
Loyola was born and raised in the local area and lived for 22 years in Lansing and 33 additional years in Florida before returning to her roots about six years ago with her husband, Walter.
"My eyesight has been going for about 15 years and I used to say to my husband, 'It's so dark in the house. Something must be wrong.' He always told me, 'It's not dark. You're eyes must be getting worse.'"
Loyola's eyes were indeed getting worse. During a visit to an eye specialist in Wisconsin, her condition was officially diagnosed and she was informed that "it was the worst kind and could never be reversed."
"My eyesight was going down, down, down until now I'm in total darkness," Loyola said. "But I do thank God that I didn't go blind all at once. That would have been very hard to deal with."
Although Loyola tries to stay as active as she can, she admits that a few of the activities she enjoyed for years are now impossible for her.
"I used to enjoy bowling and playing bingo but I can't do any of that anymore," Loyola said. "I can't see the leaves turn anymore and I can't see the beautiful flowers. But, oh well - I get along just fine. You have to learn to take what God gives you."
Although she considers herself independent, Loyola has availed herself of help from local agencies. A homemaker aide, provided by the Community Action Agency's home health care service program, comes to Loyola's home once a week to help clean her home. After her husband's death four years ago, Loyola sought the aid of a Senior Companion and one was provided for her by the CAA Senior Companion Program. Her first relationship lasted for three years until her Senior Companion retired in June. Soon after, Senior Companion Cheryl Corbiere was introduced to Loyola and the pair "hit it off immediately." Cheryl visits with Loyola three days a week - two hours on Monday and Friday and three hours each Wednesday.
The pair make meals together one day a week and Cheryl and Loyola are frequent visitors to area concerts and musical performances.
"When there's polka music playing, Loyola is usually dancing every dance," Cheryl grinned.
Although Cheryl was not surprised at Loyola's accomplishments, she admits she was impressed to see her attempt to crochet - a hobby she has enjoyed for many years.
"When I first saw her crochet, I noticed she was trying to stitch over and over in the same hole so I helped her feel her way along," Cheryl said. "Now she's doing very well."
"My mother taught me to crochet when I was a young girl," said Loyola. "I used to crochet doilies and used the pineapple pattern to make lots of things."
At the present time, Loyola is working on a pretty blue afghan.
"I know how many stitches are in each row," she explained. "When I begin each row, I count until I get to the end. If I have too many or not enough, I rip it back and find where I made the mistake."
She also places markers at regular intervals along the row. "That way if I have to tear it back, I use the markers to let me know how many stitches I have already made and don't have to go back to the beginning of the row and start all over." In addition, Loyola has put a large safety pin on each side edge to help her stay on the right row.
Don't even suggest that Loyola move out of her home and into a facility that could provide more help to her.
"People have suggested that I move to an adult foster care home or assisted living facility, but why should I?" she asked. "This is my home and I know where everything is.
Over time, Loyola has obtained a number of items in her home that make her day-to-day living easier. She has a talking watch that tells her the time and the date. She also has a cup that beeps when a sufficient amount of liquid is poured into it. She is also in the process of obtaining a PenFriend Voice Labeling System that will help her identify items in her kitchen cupboards. Once identified, she will be able to arrange each item in rows for easy access.
"I once had a craving for beans and I opened three cans until I found one," she said with a laugh.
In addition, Loyola has met with a representative of the Commission for the Blind for help in obtaining a microwave that talks. "I had one but it died and I'm trying to get another one," Loyola said. "And the commission said when they find one, they will order it for me."
Because Loyola doesn't particularly enjoy television, Cheryl helped her Companion locate talking books on tape, now available free of charge in Lansing.
"Every month when the catalogue comes, we go through it and I order the ones she wants," said Corbier.
Although she was offered the opportunity to attend a school for the blind to learn how to adapt to living sightless, Loyola scoffed at the offer. "What good would it do me?" she asked.
In addition to utilizing gadgets and household help, Loyola has learned a number of techniques on her own to help her get along.
"I put in a knot in my shoe laces so I know the right from the left," she said. "I have a cane but I only use it when I walk around from one room to another in the house. I have a telephone that automatically dials the numbers that I have preprogrammed into it. But I have to keep it updated, particularly with people who have changed their numbers or have gone to using cell phones."
Another technique that Loyola has developed is learning how to identify the money she has in her purse. Coins are identifiable by feeling them, however paper money is a little more difficult to handle.
"I fold each dollar bill twice," she explained. "The fives I fold in half the long way and the tens I fold the opposite way. The twenties I leave long. I don't fold them."
As if taking care of herself wasn't enough of a challenge for her, Loyola also enjoys caring for her 4-year-old long-haired Chihuahua named Precious.
"She's another reason why I refused to go to school," Loyola explained. "I would have had to go for six weeks and I didn't want to leave her behind and I couldn't take her. She's a spoiled baby. She likes to be in my lap but when I'm crocheting, she pushes the afghan off to the side so she can have my lap to herself."