Blog Post

Staying engaged, with dementia

Betty Ann Fellner remains active by volunteering, despite a diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia. (Courtesy of Betty Ann Fellner)

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

When Betty Ann Fellner’s surgeon okayed her to start physical therapy after a 2011 hip replacement, she felt relieved at clearing a major health hurdle. But her physical therapist uncovered a shocking new problem. “The therapist told my husband, David, that I was obviously intelligent, but I couldn’t follow directions,” Fellner said. “She said something was wrong.”

Eventually, a neurological exam showed that Fellner, 79, had frontotemporal dementia (FTD). The progressive loss of nerve cells in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes with this illness causes diminished muscle function, difficulty with language, and, ultimately, deteriorating behavior. When the symptoms of FTD surfaced, Fellner had long since retired. But her lifelong love of the arts and her volunteer efforts since retiring have kept her active and engaged as she navigates the health challenges in her life.

Fellner’s career included four years as program director at the Gershman Y at Broad and Pine streets. “I loved organizing cultural events,” she said.  “It was wonderful.” Fellner also taught history for many years at Philadelphia’s Akiba Academy, a Jewish day school located in Merion at the time (which has since become Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr).

After Fellner retired, she volunteered in the education department of the Philadelphia Orchestra. She helped to design a program for preschoolers called “Sound All Around.” She also contributed to a children’s book by the same name.

In another previous cultural endeavor, she and her husband purchased and renovated  the old Sedgwick Theatre building at 7137 Germantown Ave. in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. The lobby of the theatre became the Sedgwick Cultural Center. Community members, friends and well-known artists gave concerts, told stories, read poetry and hung art in the Sedgwick’s gallery spaces.   Fellner went on with the Sedgwick Cultural Center until 2005, when the center disbanded. The space was rented out for events and celebrations until 2009, when Quintessence Theatre Co. became the Sedgwick’s tenant. Quintessence has garnered kudos for productions ranging from “The Merchant of Venice” to “Alice in Wonderland.”

Fellner’s lifelong love of the arts and her volunteer efforts since retiring have kept her active and engaged as she navigates the health challenges in her life. The plays at Quintessence Theatre  bring great satisfaction to her. She also continues to tutor second graders at the Henry Houston Elementary School. “It’s near my home, so I can walk there,” she said, noting she must depend on others for driving these days. Even walking, she must be careful since FTD affects concentration: “The doctor told me to look straight ahead when I’m walking so that I won’t get distracted and fall,” Fellner said.  She  continues her volunteer artistic pursuits singing  with the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir, as well as with a choir that focuses on Jewish music.

“You can live from 2 to 20 years with FTD,” Fellner said. “I’ve already made six. I’ll tutor the children and sing for as long as I can.”

Caption: Betty Ann Fellner remains active by volunteering, despite a diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia. (Photo courtesy of Betty Ann Fellner)