Last spring, Gene Vezina sat down to eat a chicken biscuit at the Dunwoody Chick-fil-A just like he and his wife had done many times before.
Only this time, his wife, Kay, wasn’t with him.
She had recently moved into an assisted living facility where professionals could tend to her worsening Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. The number of people affected is growing, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, but the families sometimes suffer as much or more as loved ones forget who their caretakers are.
“I’m convinced that for many of them, and especially for her, she has dementia of the mind, but not the heart,” Gene said.
Gene and Kay have been married for 56 years and lived in Dunwoody for the previous 44. He had been taking care of Kay since she started showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s, in 2008. On Mondays, he took her to the Happy Hearts program at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church for people with the disease and on Fridays to Arts 4 Alzheimer’s at Dunwoody’s Spruill Center for the Arts.
Three different caretakers came by the house to help Gene with Kay. But the disease got to be too much.
“I cared for her about a year and a half at home, until it was no longer possible,” he said sadly.
As he talked, Gene crossed his arms over his heart. He didn’t feel cold in the warmth of his Dunwoody home, which he shared with Kay for more than 40 years, but it appeared he wanted to hold himself together.
His graying hair gave him a grandfatherly appearance, which his near constant smile supported. He’s the kind of guy a stranger could get to know while having lunch—even though Gene wouldn’t be at the table. He’d be the one sweeping up.
On that morning last March, when Gene breakfasted alone after visiting with Kay at the facility, a stranger stopped by his table and asked about his meal. “I’ve had more of these than you have,” Gene replied, without looking up.
Then he realized the stranger was the new restaurant owner and operator, Grant Wells. “He sat down at the table with me,” Gene said.
The way Wells remembers it, the store wasn’t crowded, so he went over to check in on Gene about his day. “Gene shared his story about Kay,” Wells said, “and as he spoke, the story of a loving caregiver unfolded. He had me completely engaged, heart and all.”
Gene asked whether Wells might want a guy like Gene working for him, as Wells recalls it. Wells told Gene they had been praying for people like him. “He makes my little Chick-fil-A more than a simple business,” Wells said.
Gene says Kay’s care is expensive. “I thank the Lord that I’m able to keep her there, but, you know it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s all out of your pocket,” because insurance doesn’t cover the costs. His job helps him cover what he calls “ancillary” fees, but Gene says the main reason he works is for a mental break.
“You’re in this big house by yourself,” he said. “It’s too many memories.”
Without working, Gene says he thinks about and cares for his wife nonstop, which he said isn’t healthy. “You have to realize other people are hurting too,” he said. “If I can make people that come into that store comfortable, feel like they had a good experience, then I feel good about that. It really is a pleasure serving.”
To convey the sense of peace, service and community he feels working, Gene explained how Wells asked him to bring in a photo of Kay. “I thought he just wanted to put a face to a name,” Gene said.
Instead, the owner gave the wedding photo to another employee, who also was an artist, as reference material. Wells paid the artist to draw a picture based on the photo. The drawing now hangs in Gene’s kitchen.
“That was special,” Gene said, adding that he couldn’t think of any other job where something like that would happen. He said Wells has also prayed with him at the restaurant.
Kay knew a lot of people in the community from her work with the church and community clubs, Gene said. “Working here, I’ve rekindled friendships through her,” he said.
“But many people don’t know her situation.”
Sandy Springs resident Byron Dickens, who was eating lunch at the restaurant recently, calls Gene a friend. “He’s easy to get to know,” Dickins said. “He always has that big smile on his face.”
Gene said that’s what people always remember about Kay, her smile.
Photos of her, poems, including the one he wrote to Kay on their wedding night, and a newspaper clipping about the 2005 Golden Olympics, where the two won a gold medal in the ballroom dancing swing competition, cover the kitchen table.
He was a pharmaceutical sales representative and she was an executive secretary and homemaker raising their two kids, Sherri and Mike. Kay was Gene’s first secretary, when they had a home office, and she worked for the 1996 Olympics.
During their marriage, he and Kay had traveled widely. They visited Puerto Rico, Germany and France. After Gene retired, they went to Hawaii, the Carolinas and Florida’s Panhandle.
He stills travels a bit. Recently, he joined his three brothers on a golf outing in Florida. While he’s in Dunwoody, he visits his wife on most days.
“She can’t sit and talk like we’re talking,” Gene said. “She can’t carry on a conversation, so you have to understand it does mean something to her in her heart. It means she remembers you as somebody who she loves and who is nice to her.”