By Ramona Pitre-Collins
My mother’s life
My mother, Marie Elizabeth Blouin Pitre was born June 28, 1924 at her Market Street house in Opelousas, a small town in southern Louisiana. She was the seventh of nine children. Aunts and uncles talked about what a rambunctious household they were, full of good-natured conflicts, laughter, music and chatter that was often louder than the homes around them. For most of her adolescent years, they lived across the street from a Baptist church, which was their joy — allowing them to listen to music during the week and after returning from Sunday mass.
My mother and her siblings began their education at a Catholic school taught by the Sisters of Holy Family, an order of nuns of African descent, and then at the local public school, where they were also taught by teachers of African descent. These were segregated schools, with dedicated teachers who were devoted and highly skilled. Through the support and encouragement of such capable teachers, Mom developed a thirst for learning and a passion for teaching.
After high school, she was accepted into the Teacher Education program at Grambling College, a historically black college, and graduated with a BS in Elementary Education in 1951. She was able to join the teaching profession, teaching where she believed the need was greatest — in back bayou country schools. She talked many times about what they were able to accomplish in southern segregated schools with minimal support; indicating that the key to strong schools were always strong, dedicated teachers.
Mom taught for three years during which she met, fell in love with and married my dad, Wilfred Pitre, who was her husband for over 44 years. They moved to Seattle, Washington which was close to Bremerton, where Dad worked as a Pipefitter in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
Mom applied and was granted an elementary certificate to teach in Washington state schools in 1955. It was the first time that she taught in an integrated school with students and teaching staff from many cultural backgrounds. It was an enlightening experience that let her see the importance of financially-supported schools. For her students, it was the first time they had a teacher of African descent. Mom taught in eight schools and worked with countless teaching interns during her 35 years of teaching in Seattle.
During the summers and warm holidays when we were young, we camped and fished — first in tents, then in trailers and finally in a Winnebago. My parents eventually purchased property in a development by the Skagit River and Mount Baker to help them live closer to open spaces. They cleared the land, built a house and landscaped gardens. It was a great space to take breaks, to meet with friends and neighbors, and to enjoy holidays with family.
My dad died from cancer on Jan. 19, 1998. Mom became more involved with church, volunteering and bridge club, playing in various state and national tournaments. The bridge club also arranged other activities for their members. As a result, she was able to tour a number of countries, including Germany, Italy and France, as well as cruises to the Bahamas, Jamaica and Alaska.
“My mother currently has no memory of this wonderful life.”
A family history of dementia
Prior to my Dad’s death, my mother’s older sister Lou was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over the next eight years, Mom became Aunt Lou’s long-distance caregiver, visiting her several times a year to check on her welfare.
Between 2002 and 2010, six of my Mother’s eight siblings died of dementia-related illnesses, three from Alzheimer’s.
She currently has two cousins that we know who are also affected by dementia. Although we knew there was a strong possibility for her to also be diagnosed, it still came as a surprise when in February 2011, Mom was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In hindsight, it was obvious that my Mother’s dementia was taking hold about four years prior to her diagnoses.
My mother’s diagnoses
We at first thought other influences in her life was causing her to be unsettled and, at times, unbalanced. However, her problems just continued to get worse. There were increasing problems with her negotiating her environment, she stopped doing volunteer work and began to function uncomfortably in social settings. Mom, noted for remembering numbers (telephone numbers, addresses, dates and times of events), was no longer able to do that.
In fact, information she wrote on bits of paper, note pads, or envelopes, she would lose. She also began hoarding and hiding things — boxes, egg cartons, newspapers, plastic containers, marketing mail — which contributes to her inability to find things. As her paranoia increased, her agitation also increased due her inability to understand what is happening to her. Her last driving adventure to my sister’s house, a 5-minute trip, had her lost for over two hours; she did eventually end up making it back home safely.
As family, we tried to assist but she refused our help. After dad’s death, mom insisted that I become the power of attorney on all of her financial accounts as well as for her health. However, in later years, she wanted to revoke it, thinking that I did this for malicious reasons. We eventually petitioned the court for guardianship; when granted, it simplified the management of things for the family. Court guardianship was a good way to manage her estate and protect her from predators.
We recognized that we could not manage our Mom in a healthy and respectful way, so in October 2017, she was enrolled into a memory care program, where for a number of months, she began to thrive in a community environment, engaged in activities that we could not motivate her to do while at home.
Mom is now in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Between Oct. 8 and Nov. 7, 2018, she was in the hospital recovering from pancreatitis. She currently has a full-time caregiver during the critical parts of the day to help staff at the memory care unit with critical needs.
Why I’m an Alzheimer’s advocate
On early Saturday morning on Nov. 10, 2018, our Aunt Ella May Pitre died of complications related to Alzheimer’s. Our Aunt Gloria is currently living with vascular dementia.
We always counseled the youth in our family about our concerns around what we referred to as the family disease — alcoholism. We now have to include Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases. As we continue to live longer, Alzheimer’s is going to be a part of our lives.
Do you want to share your Alzheimer’s advocacy story? On Feb. 19 Join Alzheimer’s advocates in Olympia as we press state legislators to fund better care and support and other priority recommendations in the Alzheimer’s State Plan.
Registrants receive issue training and lunch before their teams visit Senators and Representatives in the afternoon.
For questions about Advocacy Day, contact Peter Newbould: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.529.3867.