David Touff in better days.
David Touff in better days.

Strange New World

David Touff helped to build Denver -- but he doesn't remember that. Alzheimer's changed his landscape, turning familiar sights into unexplored sites. Each trip out of the house became a journey into a strange new world.

Dancing on Quicksand: A Gift of Friendship in the Age of Alzheimer's, by first-time Denver author Marilyn Mitchell, explores that unsteady ride in a memoir about love and friendship, all with a man who never called Mitchell by her name -- simply because he could not remember it.

"We are constantly thrust into things, and we never know what the next moment holds," says Mitchell. "Life is uncertain, but no matter what happens, you keep going. Sometimes all you can do is just hang on."

Back in 1991, newly divorced with two children, Mitchell needed to make some money. "I was a single mom looking for a way to keep the wolf from the door," she remembers. "I had experience doing a lot of things, but I didn't have any credibility." So Mitchell created As You Wish, a personal-service business that performed various odd jobs, from catering funerals to landscaping.

In 1994, she took on her most unusual assignment: Terry Touff asked Mitchell to plan and execute three excursions a week for her elderly husband, David, who was in the early stages of dementia and could no longer drive.

"It was a marvelous thing for Terry to think of," Mitchell recalls. "Terry said, 'Just make each day as good as you can for him.' I thought it was a wonderful idea." Their first adventure was a trip to what was then called the Denver Museum of Natural History. Over spilled coffee, a business relationship that was supposed to last a month turned into a friendship spanning eight years, many more accidents, and a lot of laughter and tears. "Dementia is like being lost in a foreign land," sighs Mitchell. "I'd go there with him."

Never having dealt with a person suffering from dementia before, Mitchell had to quickly adapt to the confusion, outbursts and physical deterioration that define the disease. "Life is changing around us so rapidly. If we don't approach it with bent knees, on our toes and ready to dance in any direction, we're not going to make it," she says. "In order to survive, we have to evolve. That's an important part of this story; you just deal with each thing in and of itself. You just keep going."

From the beginning, Mitchell positioned herself not as David's caregiver, but as his companion. "When you're with someone who is dealing with his own challenges, your own inhibitions slip away," she says. "It's such a liberating experience to be with someone who isn't judging you every moment. Spending time with David is to be in a real place of grace."

Their adventures included wandering the halls of the State Capitol Building, the pathways of the Denver Botanic Gardens, the different concourses at Denver International Airport. As David deteriorated, they would just get in the car and drive around, examining a city that David once knew like the back of his hand. "We all go to DIA, but how many of us ever take the time to make that a destination for looking at artwork or for just hanging out?" Mitchell asks. "David showed me a whole new city."

As both a businessman and philanthropist, David Touff helped shape that city. Moving to Denver from Detroit in 1937 to take a job at May D&F, he eventually became president of the downtown store. He also sat on the board of directors for National Jewish Hospital, the University of Denver and the Denver Art Museum; was a member of the development group that created the Auraria campus; and helped found KOA television. After retiring from his retail career in 1969, David joined the International Executive Service Corps and the Touffs traveled the world, living in such exotic places as Hong Kong, Turkey and Indonesia. But Denver was always home. A humble man, when nominated for the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 1990, he turned down the honor, saying he didn't deserve it.

"David is a modest fellow, but he accomplished a lot in his life," says Terry, still active at 89. "The old David would probably die if he saw all this [publicity]. But I figured, why not? He had a great sense of values, and they should be shared."

And while Mitchell never knew David as a vibrant member of the community, she believes that man is still there, despite the dementia. "I would see glimpses of the real person," she says. "David certainly retained who he was: an elegant, fabulous, caring man."

In 1999, Terry and their children made the difficult decision that it was time to put David in a nursing home. About six months later, with some gentle nudging from friends, Mitchell decided to put all of her adventures with David into a book. "I didn't realize that there was anything compelling in this story for anyone else," she says. "It was just what I was doing on a daily basis. But I have changed as a person because of this, which is part of the story. The adventures are part of the story, and how David was able to move through this challenging experience is also the story."

The book is available on Amazon.com and at both Tattered Cover stores; Mitchell will be reading from Dancing on Quicksand at the Cherry Creek Tattered Cover on July 10.

"I never imagined or wanted all of this to happen to David, so I'm sentimental; I've loved him since I was fourteen years old," says Terry. "But it's a story that needs to be told." Last month marked the Touffs' 67th wedding anniversary. Terry celebrated by having a quiet dinner alone at home.

"Every place we ever went, David always spoke of Terry, and it was so touching," Mitchell says. "To this day, she is an ever-present part of his thoughts; she's in there."

David will be 97 in August. Mitchell still visits him in the nursing home four days a week. "Four weeks ago, he was practically comatose. We really thought he was gone," says Mitchell. "With dementia, you reach a certain level and you think, that's it, no more adventures. But then boom, all of a sudden, he's back. He's just amazing. He is such a phenomenal spirit."

Although Mitchell was the one who planned their outings, David was the real guide on their journey. "Years ago, we were wide-eyed adventure seekers," she writes in her book. "Now we are seasoned travelers."


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