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Billie Marie Drake

Highland Lakes Respite Center volunteers Judy Speers (left), Billie Marie Drake, and Willetta House with a display they created to participate in a health fair. Courtesy photo

Newly named Hidden Hero Billie Marie Drake is not so hidden anymore. The Burnet volunteer was honored as one of the state’s 10 Hidden Heroes at the Alzheimer’s Texas Caregiving Luncheon in October, which was held virtually due to COVID-19 concerns. 

Drake, 82, was honored for the 11 years she cared for her husband, Reece Cobb, who died in 2005 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and for her work with the Highland Lakes Respite Center. The center offers a place where loved ones who need around-the-clock care can go once a week to give their caregivers a respite. 

“This was my heart and soul for 15 years,” Drake said. “I feel humbled by this honor when there are so many deserving people out there.”

Mary Shanes, director of the Highland Lakes Respite Center, couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.

“She volunteered all these years,” Shanes said. “She is just the sweetest, kindest person I know. She’s a wonderful person. We could all learn to love and have more patience from Billie Marie.”

Drake’s first husband, Reece, had Alzheimer’s for about 11 years. The hardest time for Drake was the last nine years.

“He was the smartest husband and best mate in the world,” she explained. “When they don’t know who you are, as they get worse, they become agitated easily. He would scream ‘Help, help, murder!’ It’s just hard. You never get away. I could not have done it if I had not been 25 years younger.”

The week after his death, Drake saw an ad in a local newspaper seeking people who were interested in starting a respite program. She didn’t hesitate. She knew how much having a break from the care of her late husband would have helped her physically, emotionally, and mentally.

“You can’t understand it unless you have someone who has dementia,” Drake said. “No words can explain it.”

The newly formed Highland Lakes Respite Center found a home at First United Methodist Church in Burnet, which offered its space for three months. 

“Three months turned into 15 years,” Drake said. “Burnet County needed a respite center so much.”

At its height, the center served nine people with early-stage Alzheimer’s, which was the church’s liability limit. Before COVID-19 hit, it had seven people in the program, which had to shut down because of the pandemic. 

Caregivers drop off their loved ones at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays. They pick them up again between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. 

“We are their friend, their buddy for the day so their loved one can have a break,” Drake said. “They’d recognize their buddy was glad to have a day with them.”

The center serves breakfast, organizes a physical activity, and then breaks clients into groups to play games. Some might go outdoors and enjoy the garden or participate in a bean bag toss. Lunch is served before the end of the session.

“People look forward to coming, people with Alzheimer’s who don’t understand what it is,” she continued. “They were thrilled to be there and had a wonderful time.”  

Caregivers use the time to run errands and keep personal appointments. One caregiver brought a blanket and pillow and slept in a pew.

“That kept her going the whole week,” Drake said. “You need a little bit of time to yourself. You desperately need a few hours a week.”

Today, Billie is married to Barry Drake, who has post-polio syndrome, a weakening of muscles previously affected by the polio virus. 

“I’m a caregiver by nature,” she said. “He’s so easy to take care of. He appreciates it so much.”