Adrienne Drell is a bundle of energy in stark contrast to her husband Franklin Nitikman, who is sitting in a wheelchair next to her in his room at Weinberg Community’s Friend Center for Memory Care in Deerfield. She sings to him and massages his back lovingly, all while chatting about what is happening with their friends and family members across the country. He responds, in his own way, mostly by looking at her intensely. The connection is strong, but he can no longer really speak. Occasionally, he can say a few words of a familiar song like “I’ll be coming around the mountain.” Music is something that still lights up his face and Adrienne, who goes by the childhood nickname “Bunny,” is delighted when he repeats even a few of the lyrics, clearly hoping for a few more.
Their love story began in 1969, and they will be celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary this December. For much of the past four decades, they both had extremely successful careers and a very active social life that included travel around the world, volunteer work, and unique hobbies such as Frank being an extra at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Scattered throughout Frank’s room, there are pictures of him in costumes and dramatic make-up, his arm around stars like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. He was also an active board member of Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, chairman of the Chicago Sinfonia Orchestra, and president of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.
Professionally, Frank was an estate planning attorney for over 40 years and a partner at the Chicago-based law firm McDermott, Will and Emery. He grew up in Davenport (IA), attended Northwestern University and received his law degree at Yale University, where Adrienne received a master’s in the Study of Law after first receiving a master’s in English at Northwestern. Now freelancing occasionally, Adrienne was an award-winning investigative reporter for almost thirty years at the Waukegan News-Sun and the Chicago Sun-Times. Her beat included the federal courts and legal affairs. After leaving the Sun Times, she became an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Recently, Adrienne was elected board chair of the American Friends of the University of Sussex where she spent her junior year abroad.
Adrienne makes it clear that Frank was always her biggest fan and that he was incredibly supportive of her work in what was recognized as a man’s world, in those days. In many ways, they could be defined as a power couple. But they also valued family time and were devoted to their parents.
Looking back, Adrienne says that she should have recognized, almost 20 years ago, the early signs that something was “not quite right” with Frank. He was admired both personally and professionally, but he would occasionally respond to a social situation in an unusual way. However, Adrienne didn’t focus on these infrequent incidents because of his incredibly inviting personality and warm sense of humor. But then, as he approached his mid-60s, and the awkward incidents became more frequent, they decided it was time for him to have some testing. It took almost three years before he was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD).
According to the Mayo Clinic, “FTD is an umbrella term for a group of uncommon brain disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which atrophy, and are generally associated with changes in personality, behavior and language.” It is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease and usually begins between ages 40-65. FTD brings a gradual, progressive decline in behavior, language or movement, with memory usually relatively preserved.”
Once the diagnosis was made, and Frank’s condition grew more obvious, Adrienne reached out to Northwestern University and started to look for programs that could help Frank stay active and engaged with everything he liked to do such as music, singing, attending cultural events, and acting. She learned that CJE had an innovative program with Northwestern called the Culture Bus, which took people diagnosed with mild memory loss to different places in the city on fun and educational “outings” via CJE’s iconic Shalom Bus. On other days, Frank attended CJE’s Adult Day Services so Adrienne could work or volunteer while he was able to socialize with peers and be supervised at the same time. Adrienne also had daytime caregivers to help him at home with other activities of daily living such as getting dressed or driving him to appointments.
Although CJE’s Culture Bus program ended a few years ago, Adrienne liked the model so much that over a decade ago, with CJE’s guidance, she originated a similar program called the Adventure Bus in Tucson where she and Frank spent their winters.
Over the course of the past 10 years, Frank’s FTD has limited his ability to speak and feed himself, which is why he is now living at Friend Center, where Adrienne can visit regularly and spend time with her beloved husband. And when she is not there, she knows that Friend Center staff are looking out for him and providing him with amazing care. She has peace of mind knowing how devoted the staff is to him. More than once she says, “they treat him like family.” Jennifer Weininger, Executive Director of Weinberg Community, has become a dear friend and acknowledges that it is hard not to develop special relationships with the residents and their families: “When Adrienne can’t be here, we want her to know that Frank is more than a client or a diagnosis. He is appreciated as an individual. We honor him for his special gifts, and the joy he brings to Adrienne.”
Adrienne is proud of the life they shared together. In 2019, the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School launched The Adrienne C. Drell and Franklin W. Nitikman Elder Law Project “to explore aging and the law through multiple prongs—academic, experiential, and theoretical.” According to Professor Abbe R. Gluck, Faculty of the Solomon Center, “The health, healthcare, and care of our aging population, which continues to grow exponentially, will be one of the most important health law and policy questions of our generation.”
In an interview by Yale University about their donation to this project, Adrienne is quoted as saying, “As a result of our experiences and because we had elderly parents, both Frank and I were very interested in senior issues. This became even more relevant when Frank developed Frontotemporal Degeneration and very much against his character, became a victim of fraud schemes.”
During this interview, Adrienne continues to sit close to Frank, breaking into the occasional song to gain his attention. Her philanthropic philosophy is that she wants to give back to the community in ways that can benefit people now so she can see the impact on the quality of their lives, especially at Weinberg Community’s Friend Center. She has made numerous contributions to ensure that a Music Therapy program is funded at Friend Center. Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music to help people by accomplishing individualized goals. For older adults, music therapy can help improve their overall well-being and quality of life. This form of therapy can also help with memory and other cognitive issues: one can pair information with familiar and improvised music, and then use that connection as a springboard to recall memories and have meaningful discussions. Music therapy can also use rhythm as a cue for movement, and songwriting for emotional expression.
CJE’s Culture Bus, Adult Day Services and now Friend Center have helped to enrich Frank’s life throughout his journey with FTD and this is what inspires Adrienne to give to CJE SeniorLife. She has also developed some lifelong friends at CJE whose professional knowledge about the transitions of aging, whether at home or in a residence like Friend Center, is unparalleled. She is thankful for their emotional support as well.
CJE is fortunate to have friends like Adrienne Drell who believe in its enduring mission. She is truly giving back to our CJE community in a meaningful way. Her tenderness and love for Frank, along with her deep appreciation for all the caring staff who surround him with compassion, is a reminder that out of darkness, comes light.