For Many in Need, The Little Red House Makes a Big Impact

Allan Plantenga’s face lights up with delight as he recalls his idyllic and occasionally mischievous childhood in Spring Lake: carefree bike rides with his buddies and siblings throughout the Tri-Cities, exploring the bayous of the Grand River or body surfing in the frothy, windwhipped waves of Lake Michigan on enchanted summer afternoons.

He vividly remembers riding his bike off the boat launch at the ferry landing near his house in the village, plunging into the Grand River and routinely earning a lecture from his watchful mother, particularly when he was “borrowing” one of his sibling’s bicycles.

“It was a fairy-tale life in the old ferry master’s house,” said Plantenga, now 66, who cherishes any happy recollection of distant days as his memory and health continue to fade and fail him.

For the past several years, he’s lived with the devastating dual diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, along with additional complications of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder linked to his experiences serving with the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War.

“By day, he is a lovely guy — a sweetheart,” said Plantenga’s wife, Martha, “but in the mid-to-late afternoon, when sundowners begins to set in and the effects of dementia keep him up and agitated and aggressive with an inability to reason, well, it becomes a nightmare all night long. He becomes a completely different personality. Believe me, the caregivers are affected by the illness — just in a different way.”

Plantenga, who worked at his family’s dry cleaning business in the Tri-Cities until his disease forced an early retirement, now lives at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. But both he and his spouse credit The Little Red House in Spring Lake with helping them stay safe and sane for the past several years during his transition from independent living.

“I just couldn’t do it alone in our own house anymore,” said Martha. “I had to have help, but Al wanted only me. He didn’t think anyone else would understand him. But the staff at The Little Red House was so well prepared to take care of Al. The VA paid for him to come to The Little Red House three days a week. It was like a gift from Jesus Christ. I would weep with relief. I knew he was safe there. He was happy. It was such a beautiful gift to us.”

For his part, Plantenga describes The Little Red House as a sentinel of compassionate care and a safe harbor where his every need was anticipated and addressed.

“I think this place could be in the Top 5 in the U.S.,” he said during a recent visit to The Little Red House. “I’m a big fan. They gave me the first relief I had in a decade. They gave me help and they also gave me encouragement to be a helper to others when I can.”

Martha praised the enfolding environment that her husband experienced during his time at The Little Red House.

“He became so helpful to others, and enjoyed helping so much,” she said. “He felt needed instead of being a burden for others. And when we come to visit now, everybody remembers and loves Al. He was able to get a freighter load of love and good feelings here, which he couldn’t always get at home from one exhausted wife. This place is a miracle for us.”

Jody Herrelko, Executive Director for The Little Red House, noted that Plantenga made a positive and lasting impact on the staff and other participants during his several years of taking advantage of the adult day care center’s programs and offerings. “He’s well remembered here,” said Herrelko. “He loved his time with us, and we enjoyed getting to know him and his unique needs. The fact that The Little Red House could be available to Al and Martha, and that it’s nestled in the fiber of our community is a great benefit to caregivers and their families.”

Added Herrelko: “People in our service areas of Ottawa and Muskegon Counties know that the best measure of any community is how the most vulnerable populations are treated and cared for. We’re so grateful to be part of a supportive community in the Tri-Cities, without whose generosity we would not exist.”