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Elderly Couple, Separated By Coronavirus, Finds Connection In Radio And Memories

Kay and Ted Reissing at a bluegrass day event at Somerby Senior Living in Peachtree City.
Kay and Ted Reissing at a bluegrass day event at Somerby Senior Living in Peachtree City.
Credit Photo courtesy of Ted Reisssing

Ted Reissing and his wife Kay were on a trip to Costa Rica in 1993 when Ted was 57 years old. They were on a tour with Kay’s brother and his wife. While driving up one of the Central American country’s mountains, they stopped at a gas station. Across the street was a cashew tree.

“I don’t know if you know how cashew nuts grow, but they’re really unusual. And my wife was a science teacher,” said the now 84-year old Ted from his home at Somerby Senior Living in Peachtree City. “She knew about this tree. She said, ‘you don’t know about it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ So we walked across the street. And the sun came out from behind a cloud and a beam of sun hit a bird in the tree. And I’d never seen anything so exquisite in my life.”

It started Ted’s obsession with bird watching.  An obsession his science teacher wife Kay supported through their nearly six-decade marriage.

Ted Reissing on a recent bird watching trip to Sri Lanka. (Photo courtesy of Ted Reissing)

Ted now travels the world looking for specific bird species. He says his goal is to see 6,000 of the 11,000 known species. He is currently at 5900.

But his travels are on hold because of the coronavirus. And in Georgia, where those with medical conditions and the elderly are still under a shelter-in-place order, he is limited even in his own senior community. And that includes from visiting his wife, Kay, who will be 80 this year.

Ted and Kay moved into Somerby in 2016. Ted says the couple was the first on the campus.

“We lived here in Peachtree City about 8 miles away and waited until it got built and then moved here,” said Ted. “And [Kay] was having memory issues up till then, but they were still controllable. Now when we got here, somehow our medication got all screwed up.  And I lost her for a week. I mean, she just, she just had serious problems. We had to put her someplace. And now when she came back, she was really a different person.”

Kay was moved to a 24-unit memory care unit on-site at the community. It was something Kay thought might happen for decades.

“Her grandmother, her mother, and two uncles all had Alzheimer’s or some serious dementia issue. She figured she would get it. So about 1980 or so, she started making scrapbooks and she made 140 of them,” said Ted. “And so when I go over to visit her, I’ll take [one]. I have them stored here where I live, and I and she has a little bookcase over there. So we sit there and we go over them.”

But because Kay is in a specialized unit that is isolated because of the coronavirus, Ted could only visit her through a glass door.

“She’s on one side, and I’m on the other side and it freaked her out,” said Ted. “She kept trying to get through the door. And so we didn’t do that again. It’s… it’s hard to just… it’s just not normal. And after living 84 years of normalcy, and to have something like this happen? ”

So Ted hopes one project he is involved with will get through that glass door. Radio Recliner is a partnership between the Atlanta-based marketing company Luckie and Bridge Senior Living–which runs a number of independent and assisted living centers including Somerby. The online radio station has guest DJs playing their favorite songs. All of them are in senior communities and in many cases record right from the room where they are isolated.

Ted went by the handle “DJ Birdman” for obvious reasons. He said he hopes to give Kay a copy of his hour-long session where he talks about their life through songs, including the first tune he starts out with, Willie Nelson’s “Good Hearted Woman.”

“My wife and I used to be cloggers. That was a long time ago when I had knees that still worked,” said Ted. “We always opened our clogging routines with Willie Nelson’s ‘Good Hearted Woman.’ We had a really neat routine, a clogging routine to that number.”

Ted recorded his end and engineers at Luckie produced it. The DJs at the online Radio Recliner station do just one show, and they are done.

DJ Birdman’s Full Show

“We wanted to find a way to help seniors stay connected while they’re kind of confined to their rooms right now, you know,” said Mitch Bennett, Luckie’s chief creative officer. “Social media isn’t always the most natural thing for them. So we wanted to turn old fashioned radio into a new social media for retirees.”

Ted, like other DJs on the platform, gives shout outs. He thanks the workers caring for him and his wife. He mentions his friends at the community who have helped him and a local land trust to build an easy-access hiking trail, and goes into the Dolly Parton song, “Love is Like A Butterfly.”

Nature and exploring the world meant a lot to the Reissings, especially when you have to go to far-flung places to see exotic birds.

Ted and Kay Reissing kicking back on a summer day by the shore. (Photo courtesy of Ted Reissing)

“[Kay] flew all over the world with me, [and] every so often, we would get upgraded [to first class] for whatever reason,” said Ted. “Most of the time we flew back in the cattle car. And two years ago, the last trip she took with me, we flew first class, and now I feel guilty when I fly up there. When I’m going by myself… she should be there to enjoy that experience.”

But Kay isn’t there. And during this pandemic, the two can’t visit each other in person. For Ted, he’ll always have the scrapbooks and when it is safe, he’ll be there to visit Kay with them. In the meantime the one-hour DJ Birdman with hits from Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton as well as a shout out to his wife will have to do.

“If you heard the comment on the program, I made the statement that if you ask anybody around here, they’ll say, ‘if there’s anything good about Ted, it’s because he lived with that woman for 57 years.’  And that’s true. She meant a lot to me in my life.”

Ted in his own words