The circle of life in Alzheimer’s

    For my mother, Bobbie Lonergan, seeing the bright side of life was part of who she was, and she made a point to instill her core value of positive thinking in me and my 12 siblings. In our home, she focused on teaching us to be strong, to fix our own problems, and to take charge of life with a glass-half-full attitude. Mom lived this way into her early 70s, bringing her positive energy to everyone she touched, until everything changed. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

    This is part of a series on aging in the Delaware Valley called “Gray Matters: New Tools for Growing Older” from the WHYY Health and Science Desk. The six-week series will feature audio and video stories as well as personal essays.

    “Count your blessings.”

    “It could always be worse.”

    These were just a few of my mom’s auto-replies in dealing with all my complaints while I was growing up. For my mother, Bobbie Lonergan, seeing the bright side of life was part of who she was, and she made a point to instill her core value of positive thinking in me and my 12 siblings. As a mother of 13 children, she knew that whining and complaining didn’t solve anything.

    In our home, she focused on teaching us to be strong, to fix our own problems, and to take charge of life with a glass-half-full attitude. Mom lived this way into her early 70s, bringing her positive energy to everyone she touched, until everything changed. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

    My mother isn’t alone. Today, she shares company with 5.4 million other Americans. With projections of 16 million affected in 2030 and 30 million by 2050, the Alzheimer’s epidemic is poised to explode. But Alzheimer’s doesn’t just impact the individual; it’s a family disease, with 15 million people caring for a loved one with this illness.

    While these numbers grab your attention, they don’t convey the emotional heartache of the disease. Here’s just one of the millions of emotional Alzheimer’s stories. Mine.

    Seven years ago I was living life on a hormone-fueled, emotional roller coaster. Pregnant with my third child and trying to accept my mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s left me feeling like I was constantly on the verge of tears. As her daughter, it was hard to witness Mom’s everyday struggles — trying to find the right word to complete her sentence, find her purse, or recall if she ate breakfast. With Alzheimer’s, our roles as mother and daughter were reversing. But it was difficult to know where to intervene as she clung to her fading independence.

    When I gave birth to my daughter, Morgan, in May 2005, Mom came to the hospital and her eyes glistened with tears as I placed her 31st grandchild in her arms. “Hello, sweet Angel, I’m your Grandma,” she whispered as she tenderly kissed Morgan on her forehead.

    Time stood still. Mom was engrossed with every delicate feature of my newborn as if she had fallen in love for the first time. Staring at my mother, I couldn’t help but think of the circle of life. My daughter was just beginning her life, one in which she would build memories, while my mother’s memories were slowly disappearing. Yet at this moment, I also realized Alzheimer’s had stolen many pieces of Mom, but it hadn’t claimed the one thing that defined her — maternal love.

    It has been a long road since Mom’s diagnosis. She has steadily progressed to advanced-stage Alzheimer’s for which she requires 24/7 care. But through this journey, I learned to channel Mom’s positive energy and join the fight against Alzheimer’s. All I needed to do was follow her lifelong example. As I grew up, Mom was an advocate for the poor, the hungry, and the unborn. For nearly 30 years, she took action in all of her personal causes.

    Today I advocate for my mother, for the millions living with Alzheimer’s, and their families. The projected economic burden of Alzheimer’s disease on our country is a ticking time bomb that needs to be disarmed. The time for action is now. Alzheimer’s and other dementias currently cost Americans $200 billion. By 2050, the out-of-pocket costs to families will grow more than 400 percent and overall spending will reach $1 trillion. But nothing can quantify the emotional impact. There isn’t a dollar value to measure what it’s like when your loved one no longer knows your name.

    With the progression of my mother’s illness, pieces of her continue to fade away, but those missing pieces live on in me and my siblings. Mom’s wisdom, love, and core values are deeply rooted within us and will be passed down to our children. No matter what lies ahead, Mom will remain forever as the loving heart and soul of our entire family. Alzheimer’s cannot take that away; the circle of life continues.

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