Volunteer has his ducks in a row

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Shortly after retiring from his day job with a plumbing and heating distribution company, nursing home volunteer Steve Score, 57, says he quickly learned that “A man can only watch so much Oprah,” and thus he began his job as Ecumen Emmanuel Community's mailman. 

It's this role that has had him fielding calls from national news outlets this week after a local TV station captured him making mail deliveries with three ducks in tow. Dubbed “Peeper and the Pipettes,” the three yellow, fluffy, feathered friends follow Score from room to room as he delivers mail to Emmanuel's residents.

Score understands the struggles residents face better than most nursing home volunteers. At the age of 52, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. Score's high-stress job had required him to travel extensively, and at first he attributed his symptoms to his fast-paced work schedule.  But when he started to experience bouts of confusion in airports, he knew something was amiss and went to see a neurologist.

Since his diagnosis, he started working more closely with the staff at Emmanuel, and he often speaks to Alzheimer's groups — and to caregiver support groups — where he is careful to emphasize the positive parts of his diagnosis. While his long-term memory is still good, he struggles with some temporary confusion. But structured activities, such as his daily trips to Emmanuel, help him maintain a positive attitude.

“When I was first diagnosed, I sat down and thought: ‘How is this going to impact my life?' It could be for the bad or the better and I decided to make it positive. I say that it's not a diagnosis of death but a diagnosis of life,” Score says.

Score has been raising ducks for two years at his home outside of the mostly rural community of Detroit Lakes, MN. His chocolate Labrador sometimes accompanies him on visits to the community, but it's the reactions residents have to the ducks that has captured so much attention. His ducks live the “Life of Riley” at Score's home, which happens to be on another Minnesota lake. His ducks have their own swimming pool and spend their days outdoors. But every evening, Score calls them into his house, where they spend their evenings in his enclosed patio.

Sandy Lia, the community's marketing director, spends a lot of time with Score, helping him connect with other memory care residents and their caregivers. Lia says the residents have caught “duck fever.”

“The residents go crazy for the ducks,” Lia says. “They're always saying ‘When are those cutie pies coming back?' The ducks like to sit on residents' laps. Sometimes they'll fall asleep on their laps.'”

Score says that since he has raised the ducks, they have imprinted on him and have come to see him as their mother. Baby ducks, much like geese, are born with a tendency to acquire behavioral characteristics of their early parent figures, whether the parent is a human or another duck. This process is referred to as “imprinting.”

Score acquired Peeper earlier this year, but after having her for a few months, she disappeared one day. So he set out to by a replacement for her and instead came home with the two Pipettes. Shortly after he arrived with the Pipettes, Peeper suddenly came out of her hiding spot in his rhubarb patch. Peeper became the Pipettes' adoptive mother, and pretty soon the trio hit the nursing home scene.

He says one of the news crews that came to film him was shocked to see how much the ducks seemed to respond to commands.

“Wherever I go, they go. All I have to do is say ‘Come on girls, let's go,'” and they will start to follow me.”

Score plans to continue bringing his ducks to visit Emmanuel, but there is talk of making his mail runs with a pony in the future.

“I always like to bring something different for the residents,” Score says.

Regardless of what kind of critter he brings with him, the smiles on residents' faces tend to follow him too.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.

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