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On May 31, 2015, my husband and I made the 700-mile trip from Atlanta, Georgia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to pick up my mother from a homeless shelter. It happened so fast, and was a whirlwind of chaos and trauma.
After living by herself for 20 years in a small cottage in the mountains of Pennsylvania, my mom had begun to decline in cognitive function, her short-term memory shattered. I would get calls on holidays wishing me a "Happy Thanksgiving" or a "Merry Christmas" several times during the day. But never did I think that my 60-year-old mother had Alzheimer's. She was just too young. I will always remember the day I got the call from one of my mom's friends, saying that my mom had been evicted and was living in her car. Eventually, someone took her to a homeless shelter. That call, that day, would change my life forever.
Who was this woman, and where did my mother go?
I pulled into the parking lot of the shelter and saw my mom standing in the doorway, emaciated, dirty, disheveled, and weary. She weighed a whopping 107 pounds and looked like she had aged 30 years. Her 1997 Nissan Sentra was packed full of dirty clothes, old books, and stale food. Who was this woman, and where did my mother go? I would soon find out that Alzheimer's had invaded my mom's world and was stealing her away from me.
I took weeks off from work and began losing myself in the caregiving and advocacy world of Alzheimer's. My whole life was put on hold, including my career, my marriage, my financial security, and my health.
I wanted to show Alzheimer’s that I would not lose, that I would be victorious.
With all this stress, I declined physically, emotionally, and mentally. Caregiver stress is like nothing you will ever experience. At age 42, I was sent to the emergency room with a possible stress-induced heart attack. The doctors admitted me for observation and testing during two of the scariest days of my life. But I wanted to make it through this. I wanted to show Alzheimer’s that I would not lose, that I would be victorious.
I had experienced traumatic change, and I had to find a way to survive. I began paying attention to me—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I developed an online vision board and set goals for myself in every area of my life. I began rewriting the narrative of my world and pulled the ropes of my humanity out of the hands of Alzheimer's. I sought holistic and healing approaches for my mom, my husband, and myself.
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Resilience emerged from the depths of my despair. Now I can say that I am an overcomer, a survivor of the impact of Alzheimer's—both the disease itself and the lack of adequate services and programs for caregivers and their loved ones.
A year after rescuing my mom, I have changed my diet, supplementing with nutrients I was deficient in; bought a bike; and started riding 70 miles a week. I see a psychologist for my grief and stress, and find quiet time to nourish my soul and spirit. I have started a blog, lost 30 pounds, and enrolled in a health and wellness coaching certification program. I have turned my pain into victory and my hardship into assistance for others.
Now I am my mother’s full-time caregiver. Every day, I watch her lose another memory or skill to Alzheimer’s. But every once in a while, I get a glimpse of who my mother once was. She is a caring soul who placed my life in God’s hands. She fought for me when I was a child. She worked laborious jobs to feed us. And as Mother’s Day approaches, I’m thinking about how I will celebrate her that day, as I try to every year. It’s a day that is joyous and heartbreaking at the same time. Usually I end up crying in the bathroom for a bit, wiping my tears, and then grabbing my gifts for her. I put on a smile and embrace her with all my love.
Mother’s Day is bittersweet, but it’s become the time to allow my mom to shine as Mom.
I do whatever I can to remember her as a mom, rather than a person dying of an incurable disease. We look at old photo albums, which offer a visual reminder of the love she showed us as children. I describe my memories of spending time with her on the beach, hiking through trails, cleaning homes, and all the other experiences that bond us. I make a point to pick cards and gifts that reflect who my mom is to me. If she’s feeling well, I’ll take her to the mini-golf course—she adores golfing. I make this day as special as I can. And I always have the support of my husband. He also calls her Mom. We are a family unit in this fight with Alzheimer’s. We hate this disease, but we continue to love and celebrate one another. Mother’s Day is bittersweet, but it’s become the time to allow my mom to shine as Mom. Mentally, I put away the caregiver role and transform into her daughter once again, even if just for the day.
For more about Heather's journey as a caregiver to a loved one with Alzheimer's, you can follow her blog.