November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and in an effort to fight this debilitating disease that affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans, Chaffin Luhana LLP team members, Dana Glad and Chelsea Aichinger interviewed Jill Orenzuk regarding her experience after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
How did you learn of your mother’s diagnosis?
We went to a psychiatrist and we were told he couldn’t really diagnose it. But from his experience, and the fact that his mother also has it, he can say that she has Alzheimer’s. I believe my mother was 77 when this occurred.
How did you and your family react?
It was terrible because my dad was sick at the time too with a fatal disease. It was a double whammy for my family and me.
I have brothers. One is an attorney and he helped me a lot, but they all did not want to believe it. They would say, “She’s fine, I can see she’s fine.” It was very strange how she would go in and out of the stages of Alzheimer’s.
I just was strong and kept moving forward. That is all I could do.
What were the first signs you saw of your mother’s dementia?
Instead of one birthday card, we started getting two or three. She had difficulty reading a calendar.
When I researched, I found that dementia patients often can’t read a clock. So, I did a few little tests like that on her, and she couldn’t understand the clock.
One minute she would be in her own world, and the next she would be perfectly fine. That is the scary thing about dementia and Alzheimer’s.
It got to the point where she would think someone came into the house and took her purse, or I would say, “I’ll be down at 10 am,” and so she would call me at 9:30.
She would say, “Where are you? You should’ve been here by now.” She could no longer keep track of time. She would call me and then call me again and not remember that she just spoke to me.
And then I noticed she was losing weight. She thought she ate, but it turns out she was skipping meals without knowing it.
She kept wanting to go to her childhood home. Our family home which we lived in for over 40 years. Her house is a bank now, they tore all the houses down on that street in the 1970’s.
We would drive by and she would say, “What a shame the house is gone,” and then the next day she’d say, “I want to go see my old house.”
It was just like that movie Groundhog’s Day. You just have to be patient.
What helped you to cope with your mother’s diagnosis?
Talking to other people was a big help for me. Someone said to me once, “You just have to laugh it off, or else you will go crazy.”
A patient once told me, “When you go to the nursing home with your parents, you either just sit in the car and cry, you just want to drive and never come back, or you drink.” And they said you will do all three at some point.
Having a family at home makes you just keep going because you have to. Between her and my dad, it was 8 years in a nursing home combined. You just have to push through it, but still try to take time for yourself.
What advice would you give to others in this situation?
Stay strong, research, talk to people. It’s a terrible thing to go through. It pulls at your heartstrings.
I would always worry that she would wake up in the middle of the night and be fine and think, “What am I doing here?” That bothered me more than anything.
Before she worsened, when she knew what she had, she always told me, “Don’t let me move into your house.” She had an older friend who had dementia, and she didn’t want my kids to see that.
At the nursing home, they said she would want to wander off. A nursing home is one of the safest places to be, but at the same time you don’t want them to go there.
I would just recommend to stay strong and talk to people, don’t hold it all in. People with dementia can sometimes get angry, but I was lucky that my mom was happy the whole time.
Exclusively focused on representing plaintiffs, especially in mass tort litigation, Eric Chaffin prides himself on providing unsurpassed professional legal services in pursuit of the specific goals of his clients and their families. Both his work and his cases have been featured in the national press, including on ABC’s Good Morning America.