Kathleen Relearned Life At 62 After Losing Her Memory In A Stroke

Ambassadors Jan 22, 2021

Kathleen Draper had a stroke on May 20, 2018, and she lost all her memory - all 62 years of her education and life to that point. She only remembered her first name and how to swallow. She had to relearn everything, even how to walk.  

That never seemed to slow Kathleen down, rather she sees the small miracles in it all.

"Before the stroke, I walked with a walker, but they retaught me to walk without it so now I don't need it. Though I sometimes take it if I'm walking long distances since I have neuropathies and when my legs tire they can go right out from under me."
Kathleen walked in the Walk to End Alzheimer's to show her support and solidarity for those she knows suffering from the disease. 

Learning Something Everyday!

Kathleen more than most people knows that learning is an ongoing process.

"I'm still learning. Every day is a learning process."

When she was discharged in August 2018 she felt fully unequipped, but that was all that Medicare covered. Her occupational therapist suggested Lumosity a learning app, which she liked the idea of since before the stroke she enjoyed Scrabble and Words with Friends.

She took up Lumosity with gusto and was invited by the Lumosity App to participate in the 1st Virtual Memory Championship 2020 competition,  where she placed 92nd after her third stroke.

Walking Into Your Home, But You Remember Nothing

One of Kathleen's homemade crafts for the holidays.

Readjusting wasn't easy. Kathleen was guessing for years her laptop password. Even just coming home was a challenge.

"It was like walking into a house full of your stuff and you have no idea where anything is."

So she spent the first six months of COVID-19 cleaning and rearranging things around her house. Even though it is her childhood home, she still struggles to organize and find things she had forgotten about since before the stroke.

"The hardest thing is I feel like when I used to move things around the house I used to be able to picture how it would work before and now I don't have that. Now I wing it and it's going to look good or I'll have to move it again. I don't have that ability to see it in my head anymore."

Kathleen has been disabled for 17 years since a back injury at work in February 2003 left her partially able to work, however, a second work injury occurred in November of 2003, which left her permanently disabled.

Medicaid pays for only select items so at times Kathleen has had to sell almost everything but her handicapped bed for tools to make mobility easier. This of course is a struggle for someone unable to work and on a fixed income. However, with help from the community, she creatively reorganized the house through home done remodeling and projects.

“God blessed me with people, some I knew and others I did not, who helped me in many ways, from paying my bills to remodeling my home inside and out, while I waited 5 years for the disability courts to decide if I was in fact permanently disabled and unable to ever work again.”

According to Kathleen, that’s when she truly learned how to let go and trust in God since both her 401K and disability funds were denied through her employer even though she had paid into them both for years.

From November 2003 to the summer of 2008 she had no income.

“I couldn't work, I couldn't do a lot of anything- I asked God: ‘How will I eat with no money to buy food or everyday necessities? How will I pay my property taxes? My utilities? My meds? I literally had to give my life in every need to God!”

During that time she had to overcome her former independence and learn to ask for help. She owned her home but it was built in 1949 and needed repairs, which she had no money for at the time. Through seeking help she managed to get county housing grants to replace her furnace, hot water heater, and poor insulation.

“But the outside of my home was deteriorating- but God fixed that too.”

Years prior a neighbor’s child ate lead paint when they were in a rental house. The poor boy ended up with special needs because of that and the neighbors filed a lawsuit with the State of Illinois. When they won, the Lead Safety company throughout the State of Illinois canvassed our neighborhood and tested houses with old windows. Kathleen’s house was tested and found to have lead paint on the windows. The man doing the testing informed her that she would need to replace them immediately, when she explained her situation he made sure that she received a state grant for new windows. Little by little other members of the community helped out the county improvement grant put new vinyl siding on her house. Then the Christian church that she attended at the time, said that they wanted to do community outreach and offered to remodel the inside of her home free of charge.

“You see, I'm blessed beyond measures. Every day of every month I would call out to God and tell him: ’I don’t know how I’m going to have clean clothes, take showers, or do dishes. How am I going to pay the water bill, the gas, or electric bill?’ And every week there would either be a check in the mail made out to the utility companies, or food dropped off at my door. And a few times when I called the utility companies to tell them I didn't have the money to pay the bill, they would tell me, ‘It's been paid in full!’”

The first 5 years after her second accident she listened to her doctors who said she couldn't do this or that according to her. During that time she filled her leisure time with arts and crafts.

"I always had arts and crafts in my life, just not to this degree I would say. This has gotten past the point of an addiction then I thought I could get to!"

To prove her point she shows me her crafts. Colors and craft paper and tools are poured out in different stages of the creative process and spill out of storage containers around the house. Her dining room is her main craft room with materials she buys from the dollar tree and other craft locations. Often she sees a craft and tries her hand at it.

"Before the stroke, I was in the Dollar Tree and heard someone say I don't have a wreath. I thought oh I wonder how hard that is to make so I tried to make one."

She seemed to have a real knack for making wreaths showing off wreaths that light up and cover themes from Halloween to Easter and Freedom to the Stanley cup. She says that she's one of the few people she knows that adds the lighting up effect to her wreaths.

Kathleen's Halloween houses that she made for herself and her daughter. 

She also has crafted candle holders, Halloween haunted house decorations, and a slew of crafts in the works around the house just moments away from becoming finished artwork. Considering her passion she has even been able to sell some of them, which she thinks is a blessing since her house was built in 1949 and lacks the closet space she would need to store everything she makes!

Learning Through Community Engagement and Volunteering

Sometimes her brain gets off track now, but when the doctors told her she couldn't do anything after her workers' comp injury - she disagreed.

"I had a discussion with God. You didn’t put me on the earth to be a vegetable…"

And somewhere there she found her answer.

“I started volunteering to give back to the community that helped me in my time of need. And to take on the challenges that the doctors said I could not do. I was not meant to be a vegetable.”

She went to the senior center and asked what she could do as a volunteer!  She joined RSVP and sang at a nursing home. She wanted to sign up for the Foster Grandparent Program (now known as Americorps seniors) since she loves children, but at the time there weren’t any openings. So instead she participated in Senior Companion for the next 4 years where she helped take care of other seniors and gave caregivers a break.  

Kathleen loves to make wreaths for different occasions! 

Her attention to detail and kind attitude was commented on once by another volunteer. Kathleen explained her desire to work with kids, and low and behold this particular person was a principal at a preschool. She called the director of the volunteer program and got Kathleen a volunteer position at her school. Kathleen worked at the preschool for 7 years, while the children were a delight, the environment was stressful. She had three strokes at that school in 7 years. She had never had a stroke prior to working there but thinks the level of stress and some distressing situations at the school may have been one of the reasons.

Namely, there was a terrible case of students being punished at a different school in the district by putting them in closets and other abuse. When the case blew up she expected her colleagues to be horrified and disgusted but more people than she wished seemed to shrug it off with a - you have to do something.  

"I knew then I was at the wrong school. So I transferred to our regular Belleville School. The school has special needs classes where many students in the nearby area go."

She has continued to work there since after her stroke in 2018. Then the pandemic hit and in-person classes stopped. It was hard for both volunteers and students who were then cut off from each other.

“I couldn’t help with the kids and they were doing e-learning.”  

One of the school personnel mentioned credits for training and opportunities to get paid to take some classes to assist with online learning.

“Every bit of income helps, but I thought I didn't know about that. I'm not into e-learning.”

However, AgeSmart, Kathleen’s local area agency on aging recommended GetSetUp to the foster grandparent program that Kathleen was a part of and Kathleen started to have another insight.

“All people have to say is if you're not up to the challenge. Then I say I am always up to the challenge! I'm going to do this. I don't know how but I will.”

Armed with her drive and determination she joined her first GetSetUp class around a passion of hers: Social Hour - Craft & Chat: Crafting and Wellness.

“We discussed and learned about the health and wellness benefits of crafting how it makes positiveness & how it makes the cobwebs of negativity seem less pressing. I had never really thought that crafting had a scientific benefit  in it.”

She has gone on to take 20+ classes since that first class in September including How to Safely Sell Your Stuff Online from Home, Healthy Meals on a Budget, Stress Management Techniques, and Get Started With Zoom for Beginners. Plus she attends social hours on topics like volunteering, movies, and staying positive in the pandemic.

Creating wreaths and crafts with empowering messages helps Kathleen give back to her community with support and encouragement. 

Once she got started Kathleen just loved classes. The idea she could learn at a comfortable pace, retake classes to get the most out of them, and join social hours for more connection helped her to feel a part of a virtual community.

Classes helped to spark ideas for her in-person volunteer work as well like making cards for students from the Foster Grandparents Program to let them and their schools know they are present, thinking of them, and eager to rejoin them again when it is safe. Kathleen crafted 65 cards for the students she works with and is making cards of encouragement for the teachers as well. She knows the times have been hard on teachers so offered to help teachers if they need papers dropped off at her place to grade and can Facetime or Zoom with students if that helps.

Memories Slide Back


Kathleen thinks reliving her past and re-remembering it is quite the experience, both positive and negative. She has memories of some pretty dramatic times like an abusive husband who has since passed away and her life as a private investigator. She remembers being brave but thinks she's less brave now, though I think many people would disagree with that statement.

Trying to work through some of her memories led Kathleen to GetSetUp’s Social Hour - Mindful Journaling for Wellness. She hoped it would help her work through some of her memories and improve her writing. Memories sometimes flood her from positive ones like becoming a foster mom at 50 to the work she did to help rescue kids in difficult situations, when she went into drug houses and pulled babies out and calmed them down while police raided the homes. She remembers a lot of paperwork and one of her current frustrations is she can’t always remember how to spell words correctly, and she used to be very particular about these details due to past roles.

“Some people say things and I don't know what that means. So I have learned to ask - I don’t know what that means. Can you say it in a different way?”

She has found that while people may ask about that generally, and especially in GetSetUp classes, people are eager to help her relearn.

She is slowly relearning everything from the multiplication tables to how to spell words correctly again. Plus she is starting to remember things little by little. She knows she was born and raised Catholic and used to know some German that her grandparents taught her. If she heard  “O Tannenbaum” she could join in the classic Christmas carol, but alone can’t remember it.

Now she can remember that she went to college and thrived in trigonometry and statistics, even if she doesn't know how to do them now. She still remembers her love of numbers, balancing checkbooks, and paying bills.

Little by little she is relearning the past, new skills, and starting to remember both the positive and the learning experiences of the past. One day at a time Kathleen is proving that learning is a lifelong commitment that keeps a person engaged, happy, and healthy!

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