Active Aging

Staying active and involved is often associated with long life and happiness. Here are three older wheelers whose lives seem to prove the maxim.

Howard Davis: Engineering a Life

Electrical engineer Howard Davis, 75, still goes to work once a week.

Electrical engineer Howard Davis, 75, still goes to work once a week.

If it’s Wednesday, then Howard Davis is at his desk reviewing plans for electrical systems designed by fellow engineers most likely half his age. Davis, 75, has worked at the Madison, Wisc., office of Affiliated Engineers for 40 years now, and since partial retirement after the 2004 death of his wife, Ann, he still works that one day a week. “If I didn’t work I’d dry up and die,” says Davis, a C5-6 quad due to a 1963 diving accident.

When he worked full-time, Davis was responsible for designing electrical systems for such buildings as the University of Wisconsin Hospital. “At the time it was the largest building in the state of Wisconsin as far as floor square footage, and it’s one of my proudest achievements,” says Davis. He ensured every single electrical detail was in place, from the nurse call system to all the electrical needs of each operating room, emergency room and even dietetics department. “The size of the project just made it very complex and fun,” he says.

When he was injured, quads weren’t supposed to live very long and rarely lived independently. At first it seemed Davis, a father of six at the time of his accident, would be no exception. He went from the hospital to the VA and, ultimately, to a nursing home. His first stab at regaining independence was starting an engineering firm with a friend. “We lost money on it, it just didn’t go,” says Davis. “I tried to commit suicide.” He asked a friend to bring him a gun. “I put the gun to my head, but I couldn’t hold the gun and pull the trigger.”

This all occurred before the days of disability awareness. “Back in those days, if you were in a wheelchair, people thought you were deaf, dumb and on Welfare. You just got shunned,” says Davis. “I came out of that and decided somehow or other I was getting out of the nursing home.”

That’s where his current employer, Affiliated Engineers, comes in. Davis worked for them before his accident, but the office wasn’t accessible. But then the company built an accessible office, so Davis reapplied and was hired back. “That was Jan. 24, 1974 and I’m still here,” he says.

He says the whole plan would have fallen apart if his wife hadn’t stuck by him. “If she had said, ‘I’m leaving,’ then all I could have done was say goodbye because I couldn’t blame her. I don’t know what I would have done if it was the other way around.”

Now, even with his wife gone, Davis gets great care. He lives with his oldest child, Terri Bouffiou, and also has three personal care assistants. One has worked for him three years, one 10, and the third — now his back-up PCA — for over 30 years. With their help, he’s able to be vigilant against pressure sores. “I have my caregivers check for sores frequently. If we happen to miss one, or somehow or other I happen to get an abrasion, we use a triple antibiotic and a dry gauze pad. Then I try to keep as much pressure off it as possible. They usually clear up within three to four days.”

Photos by John Maniaci

What’s Davis’ magic formula for getting PCAs to stick around, given the high turnover rate nationally? He credits the “Four Fs” — his personal philosophy.

“The first two Fs are faith in yourself and in God, and these are interchangeable,” says Davis. “Whatever your religion, follow it.”

The third F is for family. He and his wife, married almost 51 years, both came from large, loving families, and he’s pleased his own family is the same. He’s the patriarch of six children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The last F is for friends. “I have two friends I’ve had since before I got hurt and they have really stuck by me,” he says, noting many of his old friends fell away after his accident. “I have an entire new set of friends that take me for the way I am because that’s the only way they know me. And I dearly love them.” Perhaps Davis should add R for respect to his formula. “One day I asked a friend at work, just BS-ing, how do you feel working with someone like me? He said, ‘you’re just another sharp engineer to me.’”

“I don’t want to be given a job or position because of my wheelchair. I want to compete. I may get beat, but I can accept it if everything is fair and square. I don’t want to be pandered to … I don’t want to be pitied.”

No one would dare.


Wally Dutcher: Doing What He Loves
by Tim Gilmer

Wally Dutcher is often called upon for his insight on accessibility and other disability issues.

Wally Dutcher is often called upon for his insight on accessibility and other disability issues.

Wally Dutcher has had his fingers in lots of pies. Now 70, he’s still doing what he likes best. “My hobby is designing, and I don’t care where that takes me. I just don’t do the 9-to-5 like when I had a business.”

Dutcher, a C5-7 complete quad injured in 1956, spent almost two years in hospitals before he was discharged. Since then, besides getting involved in designing accessible homes (three of them for himself and his family), he has taken on projects that might have required a law degree. “No, I’m not an attorney,” he laughs. “I had to learn securities law from scratch because I was asked to put a mutual fund together years ago.”

Relying on self-teaching, he put the company together, then became compliance officer for the Templeton group of mutual funds, later started a cabinet manufacturing company, worked for a center for independent living and founded two chapters of the National Paraplegia Foundation (now National Spinal Cord Injury Association) along the way. Today, from his office in his St. Petersburg, Fla., home, he consults as a home modification designer.

He’s always been a self-starter. “As a kid I was interested in tearing down my bike and figuring things out. I think in 3-D.” Combine these qualities with an artistic bent and it’s easy to see where his talent for design came from. “Back then, if we didn’t have something and we needed to do something, we had to go to a hardware store and figure out how to do it. I had this inquisitiveness as a kid.”

Like others with SCI, he still deals with health complications — UTIs are more common now because of “resistant bugs” and he’s trying to heal a stubborn wound on his hip, but overall, he has plenty of energy, which he attributes to another love of his. “I sing in a choral group,” he says. “It’s very good exercise — plus I went to broadcasting school back in the ’60s. Breathing right is important.”

Dutcher’s been in the choral group — singing African-American spirituals, classical, anthems and hymns — since 1985. “I’m the minority, the only white,” he says. He’s also the group’s treasurer. Isn’t singing good for stress reduction? “You don’t know the choral director,” he quips, adding, “No, I don’t get stressed. If I get pissed off, like at the mayor, I’ll go write a letter or something.”

On the evening I talked with him, Dutcher was home relaxing after two lengthy meetings earlier that day. He serves on the affordable housing committee and also attended the city advisory board meeting, which he has been involved in for many years.

Dutcher tries to limit himself to no more than eight hours per day, but follows his interests wherever they lead. A little over a year ago he delivered a speech to two classes of nursing students after a chance meeting with their instructor. “I was in a Bed, Bath and Beyond and saw an older gal in scrubs. We got to talking and had a lengthy conversation. She asked me to come speak to the nursing students about daily living and what they would run across. I showed them different devices I use.” Projects just seem to fall in Dutcher’s lap. Like his latest, working with a builder, John Fazzini, whose company, Bountiful Lands, was in the design process for developing a gated community of 59 homes when they hooked up. “It was just one of those serendipitous things,” says Dutcher, who ended up contributing four different universal-design homes.

Maybe serendipity finds Dutcher because he’s always searching for opportunities. “A lot of times I’ve interjected myself into projects, whether they were asking for it or not,” he says. Someone forwarded him an e-mail asking for comments on a FEMA proposal for New Orleans (asking for policy comments, not design feedback), and he responded by redesigning all the “accessible” trailers to make them truly accessible.

Dutcher and his wife Chris — who has bad knees and emphysema — both use wheelchairs. They’ve lived in their St. Petersburg home since 1978. Their daughter now lives in Texas with her own family. A personal care assistant comes in the morning and for bowel programs, and Chris is able to help him at night.

In the past year, Dutcher was inducted into St. Petersburg College’s Hall of Distinction for his advocacy efforts at a special commencement ceremony attended by Gov. Jeb Bush. It seemed a logical outcome, given his philosophy. “I immediately made up my mind after being discharged from the hospital that I was going to get my degree,” he says, “that was my first goal. And to live life rather than watch it.”


Mary Pinion Harry: Wine, Women and Song
By Roxanne Furlong

Mary Pinion Harry credits playing bridge, chess and the piano for her longevity.

Mary Pinion Harry credits playing bridge, chess and the piano for her longevity.

Wine, women and song keep 86-year-old Mary Pinion Harry sharp, healthy and out of assisted living.

“They say if you play bridge, learn an instrument and play chess, you’ll stay alert and live to be an old age,” Pinion Harry says. “I’ve been playing bridge with lady friends for over 60 years, I love music and I play chess when I can.”

In 1977, Pinion Harry became paralyzed at T7 during a spinal tumor surgery. But after raising 10 children, she wasted no time adapting to her wheelchair. When six years later her husband passed away from lung cancer, she moved into a two-story home, then into a high-rise four years ago.

“Two or three things happened when I was living in my house that the kids got agitated about,” she says. “I’m not going to go into it, but one time I fell and was on the floor for 20 hours.”

Luckily, it was bridge day and one of her friends saw through the window what looked like a pile of clothes on the floor. When Pinion Harry looked up, she waved and her friend went for help. Then the rest of the girls showed up and they played bridge all afternoon.

Pinion Harry is German, French and “a little Dutch from the wrong side of the blanket.” Her father lived to be 99, her mother, 80. Her paternal grandfather “sugared himself to death by putting enough sugar on his cereal to look like Mount Fujiyama,” she says, so she watches what she eats to keep her weight down to 100 pounds and tries natural remedies instead of medication.

“When I was having my children in the hospital they wanted everybody to take a sleeping pill, so the whole floor would be sedated and they could have a hi-ho time,” she says. “I threw the sleeping pills in the wastebasket, so they gave me a shot. I told the doctor if they came near me again all hell was going to break loose. One reason I survive is because I fight the establishment.”

She used to take nitro for angina but found by accident that three sips of wine expands arteries and reduces pain. She eats a lot of protein to help with pressure sores and is working on getting rid of one now. A Medicare-paid nurse comes in two or three times a week to help monitor and care for the sore.

“I had to go into a nursing home for three months for a pressure sore and was about crawling the walls by time I got out of there,” she says. “Oh, geez, I’m a night person and they’d wrap things up at 9 p.m. and at 6 a.m. they’d be up and bright … it just wasn’t my thing.” Pinion Harry eats dinner at 9 p.m., stays up until midnight or 2 a.m. and wakes after 9 a.m.

“I write a lot of letters. If it’s something going on in the country that I’m worried about, a letter gets it off my mind,” she says. “I write to the BBC, I’ve written to the Pope and I’m working on a letter to Obama — I’d like to vote for him but he’s gotta shape up.”

She’s also writing a book but refuses to tell anyone the subject, only that it’s going to cause a lot of controversy. She takes the bus to grocery shop, to the mall or other stops and to church every Sunday, where she and her pastor discuss what’s right and wrong with the church. After church, she teaches piano to her grandson, and they finish with a lively duet.

Every day, when weather allows, Pinion Harry wheels herself out the back of her building, down the driveway and to the sidewalk. Strengthening comes while pushing herself back up the hill and into her building. She also does 30 to 40 push-ups several times a day, she says.

People keep telling Pinion Harry she should get an electric wheelchair, but she refuses.

“They’re a big honking thing and I don’t know where I’d put it,” she says. “And if I did, it would take 10 years off my life because I can keep my arms strong scootin’ myself around.”

Once a year, a friend who plays the cello comes to visit and together they play Kol Nidrei, which, she says, is a Jewish music piece written for cello and orchestra. She invites her 30-year-old neighbor — who was a pianist until he had a massive stroke — to come listen.

“Music is like a drug to me. When my kids come home, we play Mozart or Beethoven — one daughter has a truly operatic voice, one plays cello, another French horn, and we have a little orchestra.”

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