I think about my mother’s early signs of dementia a lot in May, because I first wondered whether she was getting Alzheimer’s in May 2007.
It was the weekend that my daughter graduated from Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. My parents had joined my husband, my two children, and me for the celebration. We spent a long weekend in D.C. and had time to visit some of the Smithsonian Museums. Early one afternoon, some of us were walking from one museum to another on the Mall. As we crossed a busy street, cars whizzing past from both directions, my mother seemed frightened. I grabbed her hand, as if she had been five years old, and I towed her along behind me. It seemed so natural to treat her like a child, to guide her as if she were unable to get herself through the traffic.
I asked myself a few days later in my journal whether she had Alzheimer’s—her own mother had died of the disease a few years earlier. But in my journal entry, I noted her increasing physical frailties also, reflecting at least as much concern for her physical ailments as for her mental capabilities. I reasoned that the distress I’d seen in her could have been due to her fear that she wouldn’t be able to walk fast enough across the street.
My husband told me after our trip to D.C. that he had been shocked at how much my mother talked to herself. That hadn’t bothered me—she had always talked to herself! She had that propensity even when I was a child, and my children had remarked on it when they went to visit.
I also knew my mother had had a panic attack in the Vatican in the spring of 2006—a year before our graduation trip. My parents were attending an Easter Mass celebrated by the Pope, and the crowds overwhelmed my mother. She felt faint, and a policeman found my parents seats near the altar. My mother believed it was divine intervention—her anxiety got them a great view of the Mass. But I wonder now if her panic in the crowd was an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.
But we ignored these early signs. And we ignored them for a couple more years. When I visited, I noticed she repeated herself more and more. My worries deepened, but they didn’t really become significant until 2009. In early 2009, she had some serious back problems and a blood chemistry imbalance. My father attributed her increasing forgetfulness and inability to think rationally to the medications she was on.
She got worse—more repeated conversations, less ability to work household appliances (like the microwave), forgetting phone numbers and daily tasks.
My father finally took her for an neurological evaluation in early 2010, and that’s when the dementia was diagnosed. It was downhill from there. By 2012, she couldn’t be left alone. In January 2013, she moved into assisted living. She stopped walking a few months later. She moved into the dementia unit where she lived in late 2013, and died in July 2014.
From the first time the possibility of dementia occurred to me in 2007 until her death was just over seven years—fairly typical. I’ll always wonder whether she would have survived longer had I spoken up sooner, had she been diagnosed earlier and been treated sooner. Probably it wouldn’t have made much difference. The medications that are available can slow the progress of the disease for a bit, but typically not for long.
Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease, stealing personality and capability bit by bit. I remember coming home from one visit and sobbing as I realized I didn’t have a mother any more—her ability to counsel and console was gone. I regretted the years when she was healthy and I didn’t enjoy her presence more.
Yesterday, on Mother’s Day, I thought of my mother and wished her last years hadn’t happened the way they did. But we don’t get to choose how or when we pass from this world. She bore her illness with more patience and fortitude than those around her, and she mourned the possibility of passing the disease to her children as much as her own decline.
When have you been reluctant to recognize a medical problem?