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The word transition is a noun that means the process or period of changing from one state or condition to another. Shelley Wiggins knows a thing or two about transition herself. As a Walker Methodist Place resident, she’s transitioned a lot in her lifetime. From the sunny state of California where she was a Methodist minister’s wife to the crisp state of Minnesota and its memorable winters. From the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul where she and her husband, Chuck, lived for 15 years during retirement to her current home at Place where the two of them moved in 2010 when Chuck’s Parkinson’s disease required a change in daily life

Shelley even shares what it’s like to transition as a parent of two daughters from the decision maker to the obedient, attentive role she plays now, very happily. And, Shelley shared what it’s like to transition to the title of widow after the love of her life died in 2013.

“So that was our life,” Shelley says to me in the bright, well-lit living room in her home at Place, recounting her stories and how she came to call Walker Methodist home. When I said it sounded remarkable, she was the first to admonish my phrasing.

“Well, it wasn't remarkable, but it was friendly and it was busy,” she says, a smile on her face. I chuckled a little. To know Shelley is to know her practical view and easygoing nature. What a Shelley thing to say, I thought. 

She added, “Nobody ever told me that anything I did was remarkable. I'm going to remember that.”

Here is the story of the remarkable life of Shelley Wiggins.

Long Ago, in Another Life

I asked Shelley to tell me her story. She took a minute before beginning. 

“Let's see. Both of us were born and raised there, both Chuck and I were Californians. The long-ago life that we led was all in southern California. I was born and raised in Orange County. He was born and raised in San Bernardino County, so we're both southern Californians. Chuck was a United Methodist minister and went through college and seminary there and I went through the college and taught for only four years. And in those days, it was easier and I was happy to do it, easier to stay home and be a mama, and so we had our children, and our first daughter Erin was born in 1960 and Beth was born two and a half years later.

But it was a good life. In every case, we lived in places where there was structure. I've often wondered how it would feel when you have to leave one job and go to another job and nobody wants you when you were at your previous job and when you're going to your new post, you're going to a new place where you know nobody, I just think that would be very, very difficult. Well, if you're a Methodist minister, you miss all of that. And that's a good thing because they say goodbye to you at one church and they welcome you to another church, and there are people who already know your name before you ever meet any of them. And it's a wonderful thing. So that was our life.

We left Santa Monica when finally he felt he needed to retire and did. And we came here to Minnesota. Once long ago in another life, I was an elementary school teacher. I was working mostly with sixth graders, my favorite of all ages,” she said. 

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Careers, Calling, and Motherhood

“And we were in the San Fernando Valley for a few years, Pasadena for a number of more years, San Diego for about 15 years, and the last 20 years were in Santa Monica. So all urban settings, all in southern California, and none of those places did we choose, but all of them were great places to live. I was much busier as a housewife and a wife and an active member of a local church than I would have been if I had stayed less involved in the church and more involved in a career of my own, like teaching for instance, though it was kind of bittersweet when I realized that when I retired after only four years of teaching. When I retired from teaching, that was kind of the end of one of my life in a way. And that was a little bit of an adjustment, but not much of one.”

Why Minnesota? I asked, and more specifically, why the winter of 1996 when it was one of the most brutal Minnesota winters on record?

“Retirement. Our older daughter lives in Ohio, and our younger daughter came here to college, fell in love with all things Minnesota, and stayed when she graduated, and she won the booby prize — us. We moved close to be closer to her.

“And coming back here, one of the most exciting things was snow. We really enjoyed the snow. Our older daughter, Erin, is part of a big family in Ohio, central Ohio. And she didn’t ‘need’ us. So we moved here so we could be helpful to our younger daughter who really didn’t need us either,” she says with a laugh.

“I have one granddaughter Lydia, who’s 22. She is Erin’s daughter, and she lives here in town with her Aunt Beth. And they get along really very, very well. In fact, I haven’t talked to them today, but Lydia was working on some spectacular Italian, I call it a casserole. I’m sure you call it a hotdish, I’m learning slowly. And so I’ll hear about it tonight. They’ll tell me about it tonight.”

I said to her, so you raised some independent ladies.

“Well, yes, I have. We discovered that both of them are very directive and they’re very helpful, and all Chuck and I needed to do was to be obedient. So that’s what we were.” Shelley said.

Parkinson’s & Care at Walker Methodist

When the Wiggins moved to Minnesota, they became first-time homeowners when they purchased their home in the Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul.

“We spent 15 years of retirement in St. Paul in Highland Park, bought the first house we’d ever purchased in our whole long life. That was exciting. Yes, we were pretty excited about it. It’s a little house in Highland Park and if you know what Highland Park is like, you’ve probably seen a house just like ours.”

I asked her what brought them to Walker Methodist, and how that decision-making process went.

“It was harder to do the transition than it was to retire in 1996 simply because, by the time we needed to move to Walker, Chuck and I had made the decision ourselves. He was really battling Parkinson’s Disease, and he did it beautifully. The importance of that first, when we came to Walker, we knew that Parkinson’s was closing in and we knew what the long term outlook was. So we were kind of facing that.

“We moved in on the first day of December 2010. And my husband had been dealing with Parkinson’s for some time before that, and this seemed like the best place for us when we needed to make some heavy-duty decisions,” she said.

I try to say what I can about how important it is just to hear another voice, and feel someone else's touch, that's big. He would squeeze your hand if he could find it.

And everybody knew that so everybody would come and hold his hand.

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Life Can Be Very, Very Good

She continued, "what we did not know was that if you find the right spot and you find the right place, for us as a community, life can be very, very good. And Chuck progressed from walking to wheelchair and eventually he even lost the power of speech. But every step down that he had to take was compensated for.

He really was a wonderful person to have around, but it was harder and everything got harder. It's all different. One of the first things that someone told me about Parkinson's was when you know one person with Parkinson's, you know one person with Parkinson's. It's always different.

It presents different emphases and different needs. And we discovered that it was true. But when you have daughters or any kind of a family who loves you, it's a good deal. It really is. So we had our daughters and we have other relatives that aren't that close, but the daughters are the ones we pay attention to and obey. 

Well, one of the problems that Chuck and I had noticed, when we first retired, it wasn't just when we moved to Walker, is that somehow as we age, it's harder and harder for us to give up being the boss or being partly the boss. And we might use nice, sweet, passive aggressive phrases or we might be a little more directive or we might just be plain grumpy and bossy, but we all have to deal with that and realize that our days of being charge of anything is pretty much past. And when you learn it, it's like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you learn how to do it, it's okay, but until you get your balance, it's not so good. But we did that pretty well. 

When he couldn't walk anymore, he was a good sport about the wheelchair. When he couldn't feed himself anymore, he made all kinds of jokes about that. And in fact, our last Thanksgiving together in 2013 was a Vietnamese Thanksgiving dinner. The menu was based on broth and liquids and that kind of thing. And by that time it was very difficult for him to swallow and it was almost impossible for him to chew. But soups and broth, he could manage, and we just had a wonderful time. It was a good holiday," Shelley said.

And Perhaps the Biggest Transition of All

“Chuck died in 2013 and that was a hard time. But it was another time when we realized we'd made a good decision by moving back to be near our girls and to be in a different climate zone, in a different place and having an adventure. It was a good thing.

“One of the things that Chuck had to contend with was falling. So he had fallen a few times. It was not a new thing, but this one time he was still taking showers on his own. And our bathtubs are fixed in the whole building, fixed in such a way that you don't have to step up or over too far. 

But he got out of the shower, took one step into the bathroom, which is smaller than small and fell clear down. We didn't see, because we weren’t right there, but just around, so I don't know exactly what hit the floor first. But he was half unconscious we think. There was a resident assistant with me. She was kind. 

She did what she had to do first of all. She stretched out on the bathroom floor. She made the phone call that she needed to make and then they proceeded from there. So before very many minutes were passed, there were numerous people in our little, tiny bathroom trying to help Chuck get up. 

And he didn't even try. He was just there. And she couldn't do anything for him because he was much bigger and heavier than she was. So what she did was to get down on the side of her body. Her whole body was down on the floor. She had to bend her legs at the knee because there wasn't room for legs going out straight and she put her forehead almost on Chuck's forehead and she touched his arm.

She held his arm and she said, "It'll be alright. Paramedics are coming. We're right here. Shelley's here. We're all here." And his eyes were kind of open but he wasn't focusing well, and I thought that was one of the kindest things anybody had ever done because she did not leave him. And when the big, strong people came who knew what to do and how to do it and where to take him and all of that, when that happened, she didn't leave. She let them take Chuck away from her. She didn't go away from Chuck. And just those two physical kinds of things, it just meant a tremendous amount to me. It really did. And it did to Chuck too.”

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Shelley's Here. We're All Here

The Final Days

“At that point, he was not talking very much, but he could talk. But there would come a time when he really couldn't talk anymore, and so he would smile. He had big blue eyes. So he was a good smiler, and he would smile at everybody. And when he couldn't really talk at all anymore, he spent a lot of time sleeping. And when his eyes were closed and he didn't know you were there, because he was also losing hearing badly, he would squeeze your hand if he could find it. And everybody knew that so everybody would come and hold his hand. And when he just couldn't do any of those things, he would simply smile and keep his eyes closed.

“And the last two or three months, we had a hospital bed right here in the middle of the floor so that Chuck could watch the birds. But mostly at this apartment, it's watching the squirrels in their constant wars. And he would watch them, and the various employees here at Walker would just come in. They'd be on their way from one place to another and then they'd just come in and touch him on the forehead or give him a kiss and say, "Hi Chuck," and then they'd be gone. They wouldn't be here a minute. But that happened. People came and went all the time and it was just wonderful.

“And when people around me complain because it's hard for them to see somebody they love just withering away, I try to say what I can say — and I know I say too much — but I try to say what I can say about how important it is just to hear another voice, and if you can see, to see other people's eyes and feel someone else's touch, that's big.

“You know what? I realize that you don't have to be afraid of death, but it is worth thinking about, to be a little concerned about or to be afraid of the dying process, because that's tough. That's tough. And when you have people around you who either closely or more generally just bring another voice, another perspective, footsteps. They're all valuable. They really are.”

There Are Exercise Classes. There Are Discussion Groups. There Are All Sorts Of Things.

Community

As I wrapped up my time with Shelley, I asked her a final question. How do you feel now about Walker Methodist and all the transitions in life that have led you here?

She said almost immediately, “I've not regretted it a bit. It's a good place to live and it's a very friendly community. And so even though it involved deafness and involved Parkinson's disease, our last years here have been very, very good. It's been a wonderful, affirmative place to live.”

“It's like living in the community rather than an assisted living center. Because there are always people. My home, my property, my estate is within these walls. But I walk out the front door and I'm in a neighborhood. I go 15 steps one direction and there's somebody to talk to, and 15 steps in the other direction, somebody else to talk to. There are exercise classes. There are discussion groups. There are all sorts of things. And until the last year or so, I've been one of those who just do a lot of walking around. This is a nice neighborhood to live in. It's old and comfortable and some families and mostly homeowners, but some families raise children and some families raise gardens and both are nice and not like each other very much at all. And that makes it good too.”

 

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Where Shelley Lives