John Adams has been anxious lately. The nuclear engineer and his wife brought home their newborn son shortly before the pandemic started, and working from home has been challenging.
For stress relief, Adams, who lives in Bedford, Va., likes to scroll through social media looking at woodworking projects, and one of his favorites places is Reddit, where there’s a community dedicated to woodworking.
About a month ago, a post jumped out at him.
“Are there any craftsmen here who would be willing to make a shallow cabinet for me so I can create a ‘busy box’ for my brother with Alzheimer’s?” it read.
The poster, Sharon Elin of Mechanicsville, Va., near Richmond, explained that she hoped to attach several kinds of latches and hooks on the doors to provide her brother with something to fiddle with and engage his mind. Her brother had become more frustrated lately and had been wandering around his two-acre property in North Carolina.
Adams, 31, knew right away that he was the person for the task. Woodworking had been his favorite hobby since college, when he’d refinished a dining room table for his future wife, he said. And it would be a great distraction for him.
He agreed to make the box, then he stayed awake in bed for hours that night coming up with a design for it.
“I thought, ‘I can’t pass this up — it seems like fate,’ “ said Adams, who lives about 30 miles from Roanoke. “Here was somebody in need, just a few hours away. And I had plenty of scrap wood waiting to be used in my shop.”
After consulting on Reddit with Elin, Adams spent a weekend in his shop building a polished pine busy box. As he worked, he kept in mind Elin’s brother, a retired chemistry teacher he’d never met, hoping the box would engage him and bring him joy.
Elin had mentioned that fidget lap quilts with buttons, pockets and zippers can help keep people with dementia busy and give them something to do with their hands when they become agitated.
She said she’d noticed that as her brother’s memory loss progressed, he became more restless and could spend hours doing the same tasks repeatedly, often old habits, such as folding towels or arranging bird feeders on the porch.
“That’s when I started thinking that maybe a busy box would help,” Elin said. “I envisioned putting little surprises inside for him to find, like a new baseball cap or a pair of socks.”
Her brother, Chad Chadbourne, developed early-onset Alzheimer’s about nine years ago when he was in his early 60s. Now 70, he lives with his wife, Kathryn Chadbourne, in rural North Carolina, and will soon be moving into a care center, Elin said.
“He’s always loved tools and tinkering with things, and I thought he’d enjoy something that had hardware on it instead of some of the lap cloths I’d seen with zippers and Velcro,” said Elin, 65.
“I could envision a ‘busy box’ in my mind, but I had no idea how to make it myself,” she said.
She and Adams messaged on Reddit about her idea, then he designed a box that he thought Chadbourne would appreciate. Rather than look at other busy boxes online, Adams came up with his own vision.
“Sharon initially said she wanted a cabinet, but then we agreed that something lightweight was better,” he said. “I envisioned a box that her brother could sit down at the table and open.”
Adams understands the pain of Alzheimer’s.
“My wife’s grandmother is going through dementia right now, and my grandmother passed away from it about six years ago,” he said. “I know that she would have enjoyed something like this. I thought about her a lot when I went into the shop to work on the box that weekend.”
Adams said it took him about 10 hours to make and put the finishing touches on the busy box. Then on Sunday, he arranged to meet Elin in a store parking lot in Lynchburg, about 30 minutes from his house. Elin arrived with the latches she’d bought for the project, and Adams brought along his drill and attached them.
“He put them on right there on the spot,” Elin said. “I’m so appreciative of what he did for my brother. He didn’t want to accept payment — he just wanted to do something nice for a stranger. It’s really been heartwarming.”
The past few years have been difficult for her family as they’ve watched Chadbourne’s memory decline, said Elin, who is a retired teacher like her brother.
“He was always so bright, and we suspected something was going on when he had a hard time grading papers on the computer in 2011,” she said. “But for quite a while, his general practitioner thought it was just the normal result of aging.”
Then, over the summer, Kathryn Chadbourne took him to a gerontologist. Tests revealed that he had middle-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
“We have no history of it in our family; it’s heartbreaking,” Elin said.
Before he lost his memory, Chadbourne had a small day lily flower farm that he’d started as a hobby on his property, and he carried a pair of clippers everywhere in his pocket, she said. As Alzheimer’s took hold and he began cutting flowers repeatedly, her sister-in-law replaced the clippers with a set of pliers to help keep him safe.
“It became important for him to have those pliers in his pocket,” Elin said. “Being outdoors on his farm was calming and took him back to something he enjoyed doing.”
When Elin posted on Reddit about her idea, she said she received a couple of responses, but was struck by Adams’s enthusiasm and sincerity. It also helped that they lived in the same state, just 2 1/2 hours apart.
Elin replied with a very grateful yes.
“I was so impressed that he jumped right in to help a stranger,” she said. “He did a beautiful job and his compassion has blown me away.”
Several people on Reddit told Adams how much they admired what he did — one called it “some Mr. Rogers-level kindness” — and a few told their own stories of relatives with Alzheimer’s.
Adams responded that Elin “caught me in a rare period where I had finished everything on my wife’s honeydo list for the year but still had some warm-weather months left and was itching for another project. Came across B’s post while doomscrolling reddit and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help!”
Elin said she’ll take the busy box to her brother in a month or two after he has settled in at his new care facility. Kathryn Chadbourne said it will be a welcome gift during a difficult time for the entire family.
”We’re going through a stressful change, so this kindness is coming at the perfect time,” Kathryn Chadbourne said. “My husband has always loved to do things with his hands. It’s perfect.”
Adams said the weekend he dedicated to making the box was time well spent, and a welcome relief from the stressors outside his home.
”I personally like a challenge, and if I feel like I’ve accomplished something each day, I’m fulfilled,” he said. “If Sharon’s brother spends a day trying to get the box open and finally does it, then I know that my time spent building it was worthwhile.”