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Caring for a Parent with Alzheimer's: One Woman's Story

When her mother developed severe Alzheimer's, Sue Strickland brought her home to care for her.
By Sue Strickland
WebMD Magazine - Feature

I didn't know anything about Alzheimer's before my mother and my stepfather developed it at roughly the same time in the spring of 2005. I was living outside of Portland, Oregon; they were living in Mission, Texas. They were 86 and 84, respectively. I had tried to talk them into moving to an assisted-living community in Portland previously, but they always said they were doing fine. So I was surprised when my mother called one morning out of the blue and said, "We need help."

My husband and I immediately flew to Texas. And we walked into a nightmare. There were cockroaches in the kitchen and maggots in the fridge; the bathrooms were filthy, and we found evidence of rats. Both my mom and stepdad were skinny as rails. Their hair was dirty and scraggly. It looked like they hadn't bathed, eaten, or changed their clothing in months.

My husband and I immediately took over. We got durable power of attorney for both so we could handle all their affairs and started packing their belongings with the goal of moving them to Oregon. But after two weeks, my stepfather was hospitalized, and several weeks later, he died of pneumonia. I think once he knew we were there to take care of my mother, he could let go.

Living With a Parent With Alzheimer's

My mother moved in with us in Oregon. Caring for her was exhausting and heartbreaking. I work full-time as a police records specialist, so my retired husband took care of her during the day. He's the last person you'd expect to be a caregiver -- he's a big bear of a man who likes to hunt and fish -- but he would bathe her, dress her, paint her nails, and bring her to meet me for lunch. When I got home from work, he'd need a break, so I'd take over. I was also organizing her finances -- Social Security, Medicare, and selling her house in Texas. She often woke us up at night to help her to the bathroom; one night she woke us up 14 times. Sometimes it was so frustrating I had to scream into my pillow, if I wasn't crying into it already.

But other days she would sit and talk with us, just like the old days. Those are the days I remember best. We were lucky -- she never got to the point where she didn't recognize us or was violent. She stayed sweet and docile until the end when she died, at 88, of heart failure.

Looking back, I can't believe the strength I had. I had no idea I could do what I did -- willingly and with no regrets. Although she's gone now, I stay on WebMD's Alzheimer's Exchange as a tribute to her. I want to help others understand it's OK to get angry, frustrated, and sad. And I want them to know it's important to cherish the good days. If you give your parent or loved one a lot of love and support, you will never have any regrets.

Reviewed on February 15, 2010

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