Ecumen Lakeview Commons Customers Share A Unique Love Story with Minneapolis Star Tribune

Feb 15th, 2011 10:40am

Ecumen Lakeview Commons customers Jim McShannoch and Irene Filkins, pictured here with Ecumen colleague Cathy Collins share their story below with Jon Tevlin of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

He is 85 years old and has been married 63 years, most of them good, so it wasn't supposed to happen. But if Jim McShannoch has learned anything in his long, productive life, it's that life will deal you a hand, good or bad, whether you are ready or not.

That's what happened 10 years ago, when dementia was diagnosed in his wife, Dolores. Together, they moved into Ecumen Lakeview Commons in Maplewood, but it wasn't long before the woman he had spent most of his life with began to disappear into a fog. She couldn't speak, couldn't understand what he was saying. He held onto her for more than two years as her mind slipped away, but caring for her finally became too much and Lakeview could no longer take care of Dolores.

So Dolores was moved to a nursing home 8 miles away, and he was alone.

Once a week, McShannoch visited his wife, but it was not pleasant. "I can only stay for 15 or 20 minutes," McShannoch said. "If you go and visit, there is no communication. Maybe a brief smile. We hold hands."

McShannoch's voice cracked and tears welled in his eyes. "It is so painful to see someone you love in that condition," he said. "There is nothing worse. Nobody can understand. It's been 10 years with no end in sight. ... I have to take a long drive by myself afterwards just so I can be livable again."

For a while after Dolores left, McShannoch still had the family dog, a poodle named Mitzy. Mitzy ruled Lakeview. "She trained herself to be a therapy dog," said McShannoch.

That's about the time McShannoch made an impression on Irene Filkins, who lives in another wing on the same floor at Lakeview. He saw her in the dining room, and as he often does, offered Filkins a hug.

"I feel people need hugs occasionally, so I reached out to Irene and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back," said McShannoch. "She swept me off my feet."

A couple of days later, Filkins stopped by to make sure McShannoch survived. Filkins, 72, is a retired English and French teacher and like McShannoch, she likes a good story. So the former electrical engineer and former teacher hit it off.

"She knew I would be lonely without my dog, so she volunteered to be a friend," said McShannoch. "After we started visiting, I told Irene I was married. There were certain things that would not happen because I was married, and she understood."

So they visited every day, talking about their lives and how they had gotten to this particular place and time. They talk about current events and their families, and every evening they have a nightcap, a glass of Scotch. He enjoys Irene's quick mind and independent spirit.

"She's Irish, but I'm Scottish so I can handle her," he said. "It's just nice to have someone to talk to, or not talk to."

It didn't take long for McShannoch to make a bold move. "After we'd been, I guess you'd call it dating, for awhile, I told her I had a question for her," he said. "Look, I'm 85. How much time do I have?"

"She said 'yes' before I asked the question," said McShannoch.

So Jim McShannoch and Irene Filkins are engaged, even though they know marriage may never happen.

"We would love to get married, but we can't," said McShannoch. "I am not about to break my marriage vows.

"I've told Irene I don't want her to forget her first husband," said McShannoch. "And I cannot forget Dolores. Recently [Irene] asked me if I had a picture of myself, and I said I just had one of me and Dolores. She said that's just what she wanted."

Irene's kids have invited McShannoch to a wedding and dinner, "so I guess they approve," he said. His kids are glad he has company.

If they ever do get married, McShannoch already has the ceremony planned. There will be a priest, for her, and his kids -- Lutheran ministers -- will administer the vows.

On Valentine's Day, Filkins, who has diabetes, was recovering from an illness at another facility. As he does daily, McShannoch called her to chat.

"I've sometimes asked myself why I am still here," said McShannoch. "I think I'm here to take care of other people. I guess I am supposed to take care of Irene. If it so happens that life allows us to get married, I'm not going to object."