By Katy Farrell
Many of the women in my family before me were nurses. I am privileged to live in this generation because I was able to become a doctor. There were five women in the University of Washington medical school when I first went to college and they were an experiment to see if women could make it. I had to wait 18 years before I could get into med school and now, I get to practice medicine as a Family Practice Osteopathic Physician.
Even with all of my time in the medical field, the tools I use most to help patients living with Alzheimer’s are those learned from my own families experience:
Lesson 1: Dementia is a part of life.
When I was young, my mother would not let me see my great grandmother because she had dementia, but she could not hide it from me. My mother’s younger brother died from dementia as did her father and three of her aunts. I grew up with the disease.
Lesson 2: Make plans early.
Dementia is insidious. My mother was good at hiding it and fooled many people when she began experiencing symptoms. She started showing signs of dementia when she was my age.
Lesson 3: Movement is life.
My mother did not like exercise but my father gave all of his children the gift of movement. He had a rheumatoid disease that improved with movement and, as it turns out, movement is one of the best things we can do to avoid dementia. I inherited my father’s rheumatoid disease and found dance, which is one of the best exercises as it involves so many areas of the brain.
Lesson 4: Dementia does not care what is going on in the life of the caregiver.
I had to take the keys from my mother when it became obvious she could no longer drive. She would not listen to the doctor and it took four hours with my aunt’s help to get the keys from her. To increase the drama, my divorce lawyer called to tell me that I had to give up my retirement that I had started five years previously with my new career. Life does not stop for dementia or caregivers, planning in advance and involving family in care can make such a difference.
Lesson 5: Dementia rules, it doesn’t care about making a good decision.
It took a year to convince my family that my mother needed to go to an assisted living facility. Of several places I had shown her, she had chosen Emeritus/Brookdale for when the time was “right.” However, when the time came, she did not have the cognitive ability to make that decision. My brothers moved her things with the help of our cousin, who did a great job making her new room look like home. I brought Mom back from a shopping trip and we all told her she had to stay. She did not understand.
Lesson 6: Not everyone understands lesson 5.
After the move, my mother was mad at me and her neighbors became angry as well. They did not think she had dementia. They took her grocery shopping and had her over for dinner, but they weren’t able to see the changes I did. Mother could not cook the food she bought at the grocery store and thought she should buy another freezer. She fell down the stairs and she mixed up her medications. The neighbors told her she should hire a lawyer to get out of Emeritus/Brookdale. Adult Protective Services and a state Ombudsman for the elderly became involved. They both told me we had her in a good place but it didn’t change the feelings of hurt through the process.
Lesson 7: The basic personality does not change because of dementia.
There were many things about mother that stayed the same. She was able to make friends and enjoy her time at Emeritus/Brookdale. Their van took her to church and she enjoyed activities and trips. She was still mad at me but did not always know why. She and I were always a little like oil and vinegar anyway. Being a mother is still her identity. Now in her last stages of dementia, she sits in a wheelchair holding a baby doll she used to call Patrick, the name she and my father picked out for their next boy. My mother no longer speaks much, but she still holds Patrick.
Lesson 8: The reality is dementia wins. But the future could be different.
My family has trained me well to help my patients and their families live with dementia. I see a lot of families spinning their wheels and hoping for a cure. But they exhaust themselves as caregivers and aren’t able to care for their loved ones in the best way possible. Today, dementia wins because we do not have a treatment or cure, but the future may be different. The real power is dealing with today’s reality to create a better future.
My passion for movement has led me to Argentine Tango and for my 60th birthday, I am helping to create a better future for families affected by Alzheimer’s. I will be hosting a Milonga, tango party to raise funds and awareness the Alzheimer’s Association. The Alzheimer’s Association’s has helped the struggles of many families as they face the issues of Alzheimer’s and increase public awareness of this ubiquitous disease. All proceeds from the event will go to the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter.
As part of this event and support of the Alzheimer’s Association, Holly Zhang Pearl Gallery will give 10% of purchases to the Alzheimer’s Association until November 20th if you say your purchase is in support of “Katy’s Birthday wish”. https://hollyzhang.com/store/
I hope you’ll join me for a night of tango and to support the vision of a world without Alzheimer’s disease.
RSVP to Katy’s Birthday Fundraiser here: