Bond unbroken by dementia

By Alyssa Schnugg/The Oxford Eagle

OXFORD — Dressed in cowboy hats, jeans and cowboy boots, there’s little doubt Owen and John Turner are brothers.

Owen, 73, is older than John by two years and eight months.

Growing up, the two were inseparable. Not much has changed throughout the years. However, John now often takes on the role of older brother, keeping an eye on Owen and taking care of him, although John says it’s a two-way street.

“I take care of him and he takes care of me,” John said, sitting outside of the Mississippi State Veterans Home in Oxford with his wife, Teresa, and Owen. “I guess we just love each other too much.”

Both brothers were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 10 years ago, although Owen’s has progressed more rapidly than his younger brother’s.

While each may struggle at times with remembering names or what they did earlier in the day, they never — ever — forget each other or how much they mean to one another.

“We’ve always been like this, haven’t we,” John said to Owen, holding up his right hand with his index and middle finger held out, tightly closed together.

“Sure have,” Owen said, nodding.

The Turner brothers and their younger sister, Nancy Turner Gaia, 66, were born in Calhoun City and grew up in Maben. The two men played basketball together in high school, went on dates together, often bought the same make and model cars and learned to play the guitar together.

After high school, Owen left home and joined the U.S. Army. A year or so after he graduated, John joined the U.S. Air Force. They joined the military during peace time, just between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Owen was deployed to Germany.

“All I know is he talks about climbing utility poles, fixing things and (being in) the Eagles Nest — looking down at hundreds of blooming flowers,” Gaia said of Owen.

When asked about his military career, Owen nods and simply says he had a good time in Germany.

John spent most of his three years in the service as a border patrol officer in Texas.

It was the longest the Turner brothers ever spent apart from each other.

John said he wasn’t mad when Owen left to join the Army — it was just something that was expected of you.

“We were a military family,” he said. “My father and his father were all in it. It was your duty.”

Owen and John bought property together in Byhalia 25 years ago and built their homes next to each other. They lived there until Owen moved into the veteran’s home in Oxford in April.

Owen’s wife, Bonnie, died in October 2011. They had two children and six grandchildren. For six months, he lived at home with family taking care of him. Every day, John checked on his brother — five or six times a day sometimes, Teresa said.

“He’d walk up the hill and back down the hill, over and over,” Teresa said of John.

In April, after Owen moved to the veteran’s home, John’s illness progressed quickly.

“I think it was because his brother was gone,” Gaia said. “I would pick John up on Sundays to visit Owen and on the way back home, he wouldn’t talk at all or he would cry. When I asked him what was wrong, he’d say, ‘I want to be with my brother.'”

In August, with Teresa’s help, John joined his brother at the veteran’s home.

Since then, they’ve shared a room with two other men, but recently they got their own room.

“Where you see one, you see the other,” Gaia said of her brothers.

The two enjoy horseshoes and playing pool, but they’re not fond of bingo.

“I ain’t ever played,” Owen said. “But I am looking for a girlfriend. I’ll find one.”

John particularly enjoys the days Teresa is able to visit.

“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” John said.

The two were married 20 years ago. John has a son from a previous relationship and is stepfather to Teresa’s three grown children who he helped raise since they were in elementary school. They have seven grandchildren.

“Owen doesn’t get to see his grandchildren so I think he thinks my grandchildren are his grandchildren,” Teresa said. “They both just light up when I take the kids down to see them.”

Teresa said she and their family couldn’t have asked for a better home for their beloved Turner brothers.

“They really care about them,” she said of the staff at the home. “It’s just a clean, beautiful place.”

Listening in on their conversations, some people might not be able to follow the brothers, due to their advancing Alzheimer’s.

Owen, at times, jumps around or talks about things that appear to be out of thin air, but John nods and somehow seems to understand completely.

Owen can say a single word and John can finish his brother’s thought. And, in turn, Owen listens intently to John whenever he speaks.

Owen is quieter than John, but the admiration for his brother is evident in his eyes as he watches and listens to John recall parts of his past.

John said it was hard to leave his wife and home in Byhalia to come live at the veteran’s home, but it was something he had to do.

“It’s what we do for each other,” John said. “He’d do anything for me and I would do anything for him.

“We’re like this, you know,” he said holding up his right hand with his index and middle finger held out, tightly closed together.