Examined Lives: A younger face of dementia

My mother was diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia at the age of 63. Cause: unknown. The symptoms crept up over years, in retrospect, but really got our attention following surgery to repair a broken wrist. Mom became moody and withdrawn. She had trouble speaking in complete sentences. She baked a cake and forgot the sugar. When driving, she felt compelled to pass whomever was in front of her — a white-knuckle experience for her passengers, particularly on a highway.

Photo: Gordon Donovan

Later, though, she had more falls and began to walk with slow, birdlike steps, suggesting another fiendish disease at work. She was undiagnosed for quite a while, until her thoughtful gerontologist looked between the lines and found she had progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a neurodegenerative disease. Eventually, she would become completely rigid, and, at the end, lose her ability to swallow. Her dementia was one of the symptoms that particularly unlucky PSP patients face.

It didn’t manifest in forgetfulness.  Rather, it was a series of behaviors that were off kilter at best and painfully embarrassing – and dangerous – at worst. Like wandering off holding my three-year-old at Disneyworld, swallowed by the enormous crowd as I frantically tried to follow.  Eating off of a stranger’s plate at a nearby table while waiting for her dinner at the local tavern.  Opening the passenger door on a highway.

Mom’s dementia was an especially startling, as she had previously been so capable in so many fundamental ways. She was a wizard with numbers and a top-performing saleswoman. She could wallpaper a room flawlessly.  She sewed elaborate prom dresses, and stuffed animals and quilts that she donated to children’s hospitals. She grew and canned her own vegetables and baked, decorated and transported an elegant, three-tiered wedding cake for my cousin’s wedding. On her first trip outside the U.S., she made her way alone around Paris, not knowing the language, including a long Metro trip to return a train ticket.  She got the refund. Then she drove us to Belgium – in a stick shift, of course.

Mom in 2009, one month before her diagnosis.

Because she looked even younger than her age, and was otherwise healthy and fit, save for the blankness in her brown eyes, people she encountered were often taken aback by her behavior. But I was humbled by the kindness and humanity we encountered, especially once when Mom reached over and grabbed a pair of socks from a woman’s hands at a clothing store.  The woman leaned over to me and whispered, “My dad was like that.  I know. God bless you.”

She was able to express humor and love the longest.  One day, two gents at the nursing home had a little shouting match, all up in each other’s faces – typical guy stuff, even though one was strapped to an oxygen tank and the other wobbled precariously behind a walker. Everyone in common area could hear their salvos:

“You talkin’ to me?”

“Yeah, you.  I don’t like the way you look.”

“Well, I’m sick of your shit, too.”

“Get up!  I’ll show you what for!”

I turned to see Mom soundlessly giggling.  Our eyes met.  Recognition.

And whenever I told her I loved her, her response came back, clear as a bell: “I love you, too, sweetheart.”

There was a lot that worked for us in the healthcare system.  I was lucky to be able to take her to the one of the world’s top PSP specialists, Lawrence Golbe, who carefully examined Mom and gently confirmed the diagnosis.  But much of our help came from outside the system. My parents had life insurance that kicked in when mom entered hospice and helped defray the enormous costs of nursing home care, which long-term care ombudsmen helped us find.  Lawyers helped us have the necessary paperwork in place, which in turn spurred necessary talks about hard decisions; a friend who is a neurologist had given me frank advice as to what was in store for Mom. The CurePSP Foundation publishes information about the disease and organizes online discussions and local support groups.  Knowledgeable and caring hospice nurses – brought in by our private nursing home – provided continuity and were our mainstay during those final weeks.

Dementia robs its victims of their chance to share their stories. But early on, I asked my mother for permission to tell hers, and she agreed. Like most patients I’ve interviewed, she wanted to help others, especially those who might follow in her unsteady footsteps.

By Stacy Lu

Join TEDMED’s online live discussion with experts on the Great Challenge of our epidemic of dementia this Thursday at 1pm ET.