A ‘tough’ journey

A son chronicles real life experiences as his father enters deeper into the stages of dementia

Sharing their story: Ken Keene Sr. (left) and his son Ken Keene Jr. are spreading awareness and inspiration through the YouTube series The Journey with ToughKenaMan, which chronicles the father’s progression with dementia. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

Kenneth Keene Sr. sat on a picnic bench outside the Delaware Valley Veterans Home in Northeast Philadelphia. He was working his way through an 80-page word search book while humming that catchy “We Are Farmers” jingle from the Farmers Insurance commercial.

To any stranger, he would seem like a happy-go-lucky man enjoying retirement. But his son, Ken Keene Jr., knows better. Ten years ago, his father started to show early symptoms of dementia, something that plagues 50 million people in the world. Although Keene Sr. has significantly regressed since his diagnosis, his son is making the best of the situation. With his YouTube documentary, The Journey with ToughKenaMan, he is highlighting the effects of the disease while bringing hope and even laughter to families in similar situations.

While reflecting on his relationship with his dad growing up, Ken, a resident of Feasterville, explained how he was all about leading by example. A hard-working man and U.S. Army veteran, Keene Sr. didn’t say a lot, but always had a great deal of integrity and fairness. Though he was stern, he was never violent and never cursed in front of his wife or children.

“He was just an old-school, throwback kind of guy that was about his meat and potatoes and doing things with pride,” Ken said.

Like many parent-child relationships, Ken and his dad had their differences when he reached his teen years. They just weren’t understanding one another. But as Ken got older, he matured and the two were able to accept each other for who they were.

“We were evolving as people, father and son, but we’ve eventually grown closer over the years,” he said.

When Keene Sr. was in his late 50s, things took an unexpected turn. He had been working at PECO for a number of years, but his daily tasks started to become a challenge for him. Each day, he would look at a map to find locations to drop off utility poles. This was second nature, but the names of the streets were becoming harder to remember. Little tasks were taking longer than usual, and Keene Sr. was getting concerned.

“My father was a man of control,” Ken said. “He was very in control of everything.”

It was at this point Ken saw his father reaching out to the family for help, and he noticed an extra receptiveness to him. At first, he thought it was a great opportunity to get closer to his dad. Little did he know, these were the early signs of something much greater.

It’s been 10 years since Keene Sr., now 68, was diagnosed with dementia. It wasn’t until this year that Ken decided to share their journey with the world. For some time, he wrestled with the idea of showcasing his dad to the public.

“I didn’t want to put his business out there to the world and highlight what he was going through because I was holding onto the past,” he said.

Throughout Ken’s childhood, his dad was a very private man. But over the past 10 years, a more outgoing personality has emerged.

“This was the person he was for a number of years that he suppressed,” he said. “And here it’s coming out.”

The goal behind the YouTube video series, The Journey with ToughKenaMan, a nickname Keene Sr. acquired some years ago, is to give hope to people in similar situations to let them know it’s not all bad.

Some of the videos are light-hearted and feature Ken and his dad singing in the car and taking a road trip to Chick-fil-A, while others are more emotional and focus on the effects of dementia. In one such video, Keene Sr. is reunited with his dog Cody, and though he enjoys the presence of the dog, he doesn’t remember him.

Ken’s sole mission is to spread awareness. Many families don’t know how to interact with loved ones who have the disease. They let it consume them and allow the worst to come out. His advice, though he admits it’s easier said than done, is to look at the big picture and be grateful for the ability to spend time with that loved one, even if they’re not how they used to be.

Though his father is still going through changes, for Ken, it’s all about patience and still finding joy in the little things, such as singing commercial jingles and counting Fords, his father’s car of choice for many years.

“Maybe they’ll get a kick out of it and it’ll put a smile on their face for that day,” he said. ••

To follow The Journey with ToughKenaMan, visit youtube.com/channel/UCJBEBTPjxKEE-O5ewdsq3Rw/featured.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com