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Smart Talk Friday is a fast-paced program featuring thoughtful and engaging conversations about the politics, policy and people who are shaping Pennsylvania’s future. Host Scott LaMar and WITF Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Wilson invite your multimedia interaction before, during and after the program.


Hosts: Scott LaMar and Mary Wilson

Alzheimer's takes our dignity along with the memories

Written by Scott LaMar, WITF Smart Talk host | May 20, 2014 12:27 PM
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My mother once had a beautiful smile and she smiled often, even in tough times.  Once as a child, I remember thinking, “Why does Mom smile so much even when she’s talking to people on the phone that she doesn't know?” 

She was a very attractive woman throughout her life and maintained her looks well into middle age.  People would often say to me, “I can’t believe how young your mom looks.”

Thin, with blond hair, blue eyes, and few light freckles sprinkled her across her nose, she had the look of the country girl she was growing up.

That all changed not very long ago after Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  It actually has been six years since two neurologists delivered that devastating news.

Today mom lives in a nursing home and although she still makes sure she applies lipstick, color coordinates the clothes she’s wearing, and brushes her hair, she has aged way beyond her years.  She looks much older than her 74 years.

My sister and I, as well as our spouses, have learned much about Alzheimer’s over the past few years.  From the research I’ve done while producing a half dozen talk shows that focused on Alzheimer’s, I thought I had a decent knowledge of the disease and what to expect. 

What I’ve found is it’s different when your family experiences it firsthand rather than reading about it or studying it.  I don’t know if there’s anything that can prepare you for how your loved one changes.

Not only does Alzheimer’s erase memories one-at-a-time and more quickly as it progresses and change the person living with the disease’s personality, but as I’ve come to realize, Alzheimer’s robs a person of their dignity.

My mother worked as a dental assistant for years.  As a result, dental health was important to her.  She always made sure her teeth were well taken care of.  She may have been the first person I ever saw floss back before it was common.  She reminded my sister and me often about maintaining our teeth.

Over the past year, we noticed that her teeth didn’t look as healthy as they once were.  We asked the staff at the home whether she was brushing daily and they assured us she was.

We took Mom to a dentist who said her teeth were in bad shape and it could be attributed in part to the medications she was taking on a daily basis.  Maybe that was partly to blame but I suspect she wasn’t maintaining the dental habits she had in the past.

The dentist said she needed to have several teeth extracted so we scheduled an appointment with an oral surgeon who had experience with patients who had Alzheimer’s.

As Mom and I sat in the waiting room, Mom read all the CNN headlines scrolling across the bottom of the TV screen out loud.  She likes to read signs, license plates, or advertisements out loud.  The other patients in the waiting room didn’t seem to mind.  I think they knew what was going on.

After a half hour of headline reading, we were called into the office.

As Mom took her place in the dental chair, my nose told me something was wrong. 

The surgeon examined her mouth after studying her X-rays and then slowly inserted three long needles full of Novocaine into her gums.  She screamed and lifted her arms and legs off the chair.  The surgeon and his assistant tried to restrain her somewhat.  I watched helplessly thinking about what I could do to make her feel more comfortable. 

It reminded me of when my own children were babies and had to get a shot or experienced pain during a doctor visit.

It is a horrible feeling, but nothing compared to what Mom was going through.

The surgeon didn’t or couldn’t go much further.

After the needles, I noticed Mom’s left shoe.  It was dirty or so I thought.

A plastic clip on her colostomy bag had broken and it wasn’t dirt or mud on her shoe.  The clip probably popped off when she was thrashing around in pain.

I told the surgeon what I saw and we both agreed we had to schedule another appointment.

After I took Mom back to the home and made sure she was being cleaned up and bathed, the overwhelming thought I had was how this disease has made her a prisoner.  Her mind and body were no longer hers.

A once intelligent, articulate, beautiful woman was now at the mercy of what she can’t control.  I can’t speak for Mom but it seems as though her dignity has been taken from her.

A sadness fell over me – one that we all have felt often over the past six years.  Quite frankly, it feels like grief -- like after the death of a loved one.  The difference is it is a prolonged grief and it is one that doesn’t seem to go away.

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