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A woman struggling with early-onset Alzheimer's got a moment of grace while shopping

Joe Arrigoni is the full-time caretaker for his wife Joani who has early onset Alzheimer's disease.
Joe Arrigoni
Joe Arrigoni is the full-time caretaker for his wife Joani who has early onset Alzheimer's disease.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 2018, 51-year-old Joani Arrigoni was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. For Joe Arrigoni, her husband and now full-time caregiver, it has tested the limits of his compassion and understanding.

Joe remembers one day in March of 2022 that was especially frustrating. That morning, Joani kept insisting that she needed to buy some new shoes – even though she already had many pairs at home.

After Joe got tired of arguing with her, he agreed to take her to the shoe store. When they arrived, Joani insisted on finding a salesperson.

"'So I'm like, alright, fine. You just go find an associate. I'm just going to sit down over here,'" Joe recalled.

Joani began to wander around the store. He didn't know where she went, but then he heard her voice.

"And she's talking to this salesperson that she found," he said. "I peek around the corner and I see them engage in this conversation."

The salesperson, whose name was Michelle, began by trying to take Joani's shoe size. She helped Joani remove her shoe, then asked her to place her foot on the measuring tool. But because of her impairment, Joani was having trouble following Michelle's directions. Instead of putting down her foot, she put down her hand.

"And Michelle says, 'That's okay, don't worry,'" Joe recalled. Michelle gently suggested that she simply put the tool under Joani's foot, and measure it while she was standing.

Then, Joe recalled, Michelle told Joani something he still thinks about today: that she could relate to Joani's mistake, because she herself lived with autism and anxiety.

"'Some things are difficult," Michelle told Joani. "I struggle, too."

For Joe, who had expected Michelle to be confused or frustrated by the experience, it was a moment of grace.

"When you're a full-time caregiver ... your level of compassion or hope can get depleted," he said.

"But when someone who themselves already has difficulty navigating our world is caring for your loved one, with more patience and compassion than you can muster ... it's beyond words," he said. "And it's a beautiful thing."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel

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