An Unlikely Caregiver Battles Dementia with Friendship at Ecumen Prairie Hill in St. Peter

Doug Mehlhaff’s job description is about caretaking rather than caregiving.  But lately it’s hard to make the distinction.

As Environmental Services Manager at Ecumen Prairie Hill and Sand Prairie in St. Peter, Minn., Doug is responsible for the bricks and mortar and the surrounding grounds — making sure the residents have a safe, clean and well-maintained place to live.

But when you see Doug working at that job, very often you see Bill Sexe too.  Bill is 63 years old and is a resident at Ecumen Prairie Hill. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Lewy body disease, a progressive brain disorder that cause motor impairment and is the second leading cause of dementia in the elderly.  The routines of daily life are full of challenges for him.  

Bill and Doug have formed a deep and abiding bond — a bigger-than-dementia friendship that touches the heart of everyone who sees them together.

“This is such a special relationship,” says Nicki Rehnelt, the housing director.  “Seeing Doug and Bill moving through the day together is just so uplifting.”

It’s not that they do anything out of the ordinary.  Rather, it’s that the very ordinary things they do together take on a special meaning because of Bill’s disease and Doug’s determination to help him have a normal life.

They pull weeds.  They water flowers.  They clean carpets.  Or they just go for a walk.

Doug says when Bill came to live at Ecumen Prairie Hill last April it was just so obvious that Bill want to be doing more — that he was not going to succumb to this disease. 

As if it were meant to be, the friendship just happened.  “I just sort of started helping Bill help himself,” Doug said.  “I knew that he could be doing more.”

Their routine is now well-established.  Most days, they’ll have breakfast together and get to work, side by side.  “If I don’t see Bill, I really miss him,” Doug says.

“Bill just wants to be one of the guys, and there’s only about 10 years difference in our ages,” says Doug.  “We’re able to communicate and just be good friends. Sometimes he’ll have a really bad day, and we’ll talk it through and find the faith side of a bad situation.”

And they find wisdom. Doug says the main thing he has learned though his friendship with Bill is simply this:  “No matter what, live every day to the fullest.”