Dementia patient gets thrill with gospel star’s visit

By: Thomas Weber/Special to The Gainesville Sun

One might think there’s no room for falling in love while suffering from dementia; evidently, they’d be wrong.

Betty Daniels, a 75-year-old Gainesville resident and former pastor, has been in the late stages of the disease for the past two years. Since then, she’s fallen deeply in love with a gospel singer, and she was finally able to meet him through Zoom last month.

Daniels lives with her daughter, Vanessa Hutchinson, who works in administration at UF Health. Hutchinson said her mother’s capabilities fluctuate day-by-day; some days she remembers her daughter’s name, but other days she’ll call her “mom.” Some days it’s difficult to understand what she’s saying at all.

However, one thing in her life remains constant: gospel singer Brian Courtney Wilson, who she’s declared to be her husband.

“Brian is always her husband, even if she calls him by a different name,” Hutchinson said. “She literally glows when you talk about him.”

When Daniels became bedbound, Hutchinson said she had difficulty following storylines on TV, so she started turning on the gospel music channel instead. At the time, Wilson’s songs were in heavy rotation, so his handsome pictures were constantly flashing before her.

“She just fell in love with him for whatever reason — she was just attracted to him,” Hutchinson said.

His music eventually fell out of rotation, so Hutchinson printed and laminated a picture of the singer for her mother to keep close by.

Whether she was at church or the doctor’s office, Wilson was by Daniels’ side at all times. She would pepper the picture in kisses and tell Wilson how much she loved him.

All of the affection wore the picture down.

“We’ve had to recycle and do new ones over time,” Hutchinson said. “But she’s always kept the picture of him in bed with her, so we joke that he sleeps with her every night.”

Daniels is living with her daughter through the aid of Community Hospice and Palliative Care. After seeing just how much she cared about Wilson (the walls of her room are decorated with even more pictures of him), one of Daniels’ nurse practitioners reached out to him over Facebook to arrange a Zoom call.

He responded in under 30 minutes, and within a week, Daniels was face-to-face with her sweetheart.

Nurses gathered in Daniels’ room with Hutchinson and her brother to watch the two finally meet. As soon as they placed the laptop in front of her, she started beaming.

“Miss Betty, I just wanted to see if I could pray with you and send some love your way,” Wilson said during the call.

Wilson then serenaded Daniels with his song “All I Need,” singing “all I need is a touch from you, no one else can do the things you do.” Daniels mouthed the words with him while he sang, raising her hands to her heart and forehead like she would during prayer.

Before the two parted ways, Daniels’ family showed him the pictures she has of him around her room, and Daniels ended the call by blowing him a kiss.

“I think all of us were teary-eyed in that moment,” Hutchinson said. “My brother and I are just very grateful.”

According to Wilson’s manager, he was so touched by the interaction that he plans to pray and perform for more sick people in the future.

Dave Luck, public relations manager for Community Hospice and Palliative Care, compared their relationship to a “teenager in love with her teen idol.”

“He did a beautiful performance,” Luck said. “Miss Betty just smiled and smiled.”

Despite the emotional challenges of patients and workers in palliative care, Luck said, uplifting moments like these are more common than people think, especially for patients who partake in things like art, pet or music therapy.

“Our patients who will not speak at all — and have dementia — when our music therapist goes in and plays a song, the patient will tap and smile,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful thing.”

Daniels’ connection to gospel music runs deeper than her recent love for Wilson. Hutchinson said she used to be a pastor who sang and played keyboard at church; however, when her health started failing, she ended her career and moved to Gainesville to live with her daughter.

Despite being in the late stages of the disease, Hutchinson said her mother is happy.

“A lot of dementia patients are really combative and angry, but she’s happy and a jokester. We attribute it to Brian,” she said. “When you fall in love with someone, you’re just happy — you have that glow. In her mind, she’s really married to this man, and she’s just happy as she can be.”