Norristown couple struggles with Alzheimer's

At their Norristown home, Frank Ciaccio, and his wife, Dolores, who was diagnosed with the illness a decade ago.
At their Norristown home, Frank Ciaccio, and his wife, Dolores, who was diagnosed with the illness a decade ago. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 17, 2013

Frank and Dolores Ciaccio dance in the living room of the Norristown twin they have shared for 57 years. They are the picture of an old and comfortable love.

"They don't do this in nursing homes," he says. "That's why I'm going to keep her here forever."

Frank knows about persevering.

For decades, the 89-year-old has been better known by the nickname "Hank Cisco," Norristown's cheerleader-in-chief and honorary ambassador.

About 10 years ago, Dolores, now 84, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She now remembers little about her life.

Hank tends to her with the help of home-care workers and his daughters. And the love story continues, in a mist of memories here, near, and gone.

They met at a Norristown club in 1951. Hank saw future wife Dolores DiGiacomo sitting at the other end of the bar.

"I looked at her, and she looked at me," he recalls. Though he had been a professional boxer in New York, "I never had the guts to go ask girls for a dance."

Their first conversation came later, at another club after he had downed some liquid courage.

"Well, with a couple of wines, I had all the guts. I went over and asked her for a dance."

The then-Norristown police officer and the black-haired Bridgeport beauty, a singer with the Sal Nave Orchestra, married in 1955. Dolores gave up singing and stayed home after they had the first of their three girls. When the children got older, she got a job as a department store sales clerk.

Hank ascended in the Police Department until he led the juvenile division. He started a youth boxing program and became a Montgomery County detective. He retired, but keeps active in the community.

A doctor first suggested that Dolores might have Alzheimer's when she drove to Ambler, a trip she had made many times, and did not know how to get home. It was difficult for the whole family, especially Hank.

"He had to slow down. Every time she changed, we had to change, he had to change," says youngest daughter Mary Ciaccio, 50, who lives on the same street as her parents.

The disease worsened gradually. Early on, Hank took care of Dolores himself. Eventually, he turned for help to home health workers and a nurse, Renate Flynn.

One recent day, Renate brought Dolores downstairs for breakfast. Dolores was singing nonsense syllables to the tune of "O Christmas Tree" and then hummed other tunes.

Hank had just finished checking his blood sugar at the kitchen table. He has had his own health issues, including colon and prostate cancers, diabetes, hip replacements, hearing aids, and a pacemaker.

"Every time, he bounces back," says daughter Carol Griffith, 52.

When Dolores settled in a chair, Hank started his daily patter with her.

"Is that you up there?" he says, pointing to an old photo of the couple.

Dolores: "No."

Hank: "Who is it?"

Dolores: "I don't know."

Hank: "You don't know who that is? Dolores, we were in New York."

He sighs.

"I can't get her to come out with a sentence. I'm just trying, you know, I would just love to be able to just sit here and talk about our trip to Italy."

The rest of that day, a visiting friend leads a sing-along of old standards, some that Dolores remembers. She dances with Hank and takes a walk with a health aide.

That gives Hank time to line up guests for The Hank Cisco Show, a talk show that has run for 24 years on a local cable channel. He also fields calls from people wanting his help on problems in the community.

He does all of that and still manages to chat about the jobs he has held and celebrities he has known. As illustration, he points out plaques, photos, and other mementos displayed in a room he calls his "inner sanctum."

Hank and the daughters, who stop by often, aren't sure if Dolores recognizes them. One time, says Mary, there seemed little doubt Dolores knew Hank.

On the day he returned from a weeklong hospital stay, Dolores watched Hank get out of a car.

"She was so excited," Mary recalls. "He no sooner was in the door and she was all over him hugging him and kissing him."

Mary thinks of the ups and downs of the love her parents have shared.

"Till death do them part. For better or for worse," she says. "When you think of those vows that they took, every one of those things, they've had to go through."


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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