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The last ‘normal’ conversation

The last ‘normal’ conversation

In 2006, I decided I wanted an adventure. Not the kind where you quit your job, sell your belongings and backpack through Europe. I did it the responsible way. Ever a Midwesterner, I accepted a position in a state I had never visited – Texas.

The last time I saw my parents before I moved to Houston, my dad, who has a slight penchant for dramatic statements, wondered aloud if they would ever see me again. After all, I was moving about as far south in the United States as one could. As ridiculous as the comment sounded, I didn’t realize then it would be one of the last times I would see my mom as the mom I knew.

My dad called one evening in late 2008. He told me he was worried about my mom. A speech pathologist who spent her career working with students in grades K-12, mom was struggling with finishing her progress reports. She could no longer do simple math. In the time it used to take her to complete a stack of reports, she was now laboring to finish just one or two.

Then just 64 years old, my mom retired a year later with her pension and a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

My brother told me recently he does not remember the last normal conversation he had with our mom. My last recollection of talking to her before her symptoms began is vague, only slightly memorable because it occurred the second and last time my parents visited me in Houston, back in July 2008.

I do, however, clearly remember the first conversation I had with her when the effects of Alzheimer’s were obvious. I was back in Iowa for a visit – the first since dad had called with his concerns. The discussion was typical for the disease – the same question asked multiple times within a short time frame: whose car is in the driveway?

My sister and I took her to her doctor’s appointment. When I was telling the doctor about the repeated question, mom inquired, “Well, whose car is it?” I can still picture her later that day at the kitchen sink – she couldn’t remember how to turn on the faucet. This was real. My remaining hope for a different diagnosis vanished.

During a visit a few years later, my brother and I took her out for dinner. By this time she could no longer grasp the concept of eating a sandwich. She picked it apart layer by layer. Before her meal came, she used her fork to try to eat a picture on the menu.

I wish I would have tried to talk to her about what she was experiencing and how she was feeling. The opportunity is long gone. After her diagnosis, conversations quickly became difficult: her attention span was short, her speech patterns were altered and her topics were often off-base.

In April 2014, my siblings and I had ‘the talk’ with dad. It was time to move her to a nursing home. She had become angry, which happens in some cases. My dad was struggling to manage her medications, which resulted in a late night trip to the ER to get her settled down. From Houston, I reached out to a nursing home to schedule the home visit because I knew he would not. Could not. It was too emotionally devastating.

At the age of 70, she was moved into her new home on the Tuesday after Easter. While not easy and still heartbreaking, my dad now has a bit more normalcy as mom’s medical and safety needs are being met. He no longer needs to worry about her wandering off. He can get a full night’s sleep. Travel is again a possibility.

As much as it’s painful to see, I’ll visit mom as much as possible, just to talk to her and hold her hand. She can no longer walk, feed herself, or even sit up on her own. She chants as much as she talks. Her ‘good days’ have dwindled to a few good minutes – an occasional coherent statement or an appropriate laugh.

I moved to Chicago in August 2014, in part to be closer to family. My dad has visited me twice since then. Our conversations are no longer all about mom’s health. We are back to talking about work, volunteer commitments, family and life in general. This is important for both of us. You never know when you will have your last ‘normal’ conversation.

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  1. Thank you for sharing such an honest and personal account of your journery with your parents. I can relate and am grateful for the reminder of how fragile our life and relationships are. Helps to keep us mindful about what’s really important.

  2. Thanks for sharing your personal experience in such an honest way. It’s a great message to all of us.

  3. Thanks for sharing as, unfortunately, I can relate since my father was diagnosed at 59 and died at 63. Your loss of hope after the faucet incident was almost a mirror into my past, but for my dad it was the stove — he had turned it on, but couldn’t remember how to turn it off!!!! Thank goodness I had stopped for a visit even though my mom had only gone to take a quick shower. My father also had emphysema, which oddly enough we always considered a blessing because we didn’t have to worry about him roaming. Until you have a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s you don’t realize all the hidden dangers lurking inside your own home.

    I know your mom & dad and Chris and I knew somewhat of the struggle that was going on, but just as my mother did, your dad tried to keep things as normal as possible for a long time. I guess until I read this post, I never thought about what my siblings, who lived away, may have been feeling.

    I will continue to keep your family and others suffering with any form of dementia in my prayers.

  4. Lisa Parro

    Such a devastating disease. Thank you for sharing your experience in such a beautiful yet heartbreaking way. Glad you are able to spend time with her.

  5. My heart relates to your story, Kate; thanks for sharing it. I applaud your Dad for taking care of your Mom for as long as he did and am glad that you are able to experience a few rays of sunshine through the clouds. Blessings to you all.

  6. Oh Kate….

    My husband’s niece Kristy forwarded this to me as she suspected I would share a lot of the same feelings as you since both of my parents are traveling the Alzheimer’s journey. What she did not realize is that I worked with your mom as I was the secretary at the AEA since 2000. With tears in my eyes, I continue my prayers for your mom.

    • Kate Eller

      Hi Lynda,

      Thank you for your note. Mom was very passionate about the kids she helped. I’ll be praying for you and your family as well.


  7. So sorry to hear about your mom, Kate. Thanks for sharing your touching story. So many that we cared for in the early days at CLV had similar stories. Bless you and your family.

  8. Hi Kate. I went to high school with you ( Tami Wingrove). I stumbled across this article because it came up on my Facebook feed. So sorry to hear about your mother. It is never easy to watch a loved one go through a horrible disease. I will lift you up in prayer along with your entire family.

  9. Sarah Scroggins

    Thank you for sharing your touching and honest story, Kate! Only hoping for good days for you, your dad and your mom.

  10. Thank you Kate for opening up about your experience. Your story is so moving and it puts things into perspective on how quickly this disease can take effect. We should all hold and cherish special moments with the people we love.

  11. Beautifully written – thank you for sharing!

  12. Thanks for sharing Kate. I’ve experienced the journey of Alzheimer’s as well, July 2000 (when my mom was diagnosed) until November 2011 (when I held her hand while she took her last breaths). My dad also tried (until he took his last breath – lung cancer) to care for mom. Knowing how much this takes a toll on ALL involved (family as well as the person with the illness), I am praying for strength and understanding for you and your entire family. Hold on to every moment, because the progression can speed up without warning and memories will become vital; it’s never too late to create the memories; make some good ones every chance you get so you are not overwhelmed with the difficult ones later. I cared for both parents in my and their home and there were a great number of memories that I like to erase, BUT as difficult and trying as it was, NOTHING outweighs the laughs, hugs, kisses, jokes and intimate moments that took place in the midst of their illnesses. Even when mom and dad where unable to talk, we connected through touching, eye contact and music, and let me tell you, the nonverbal communication was as POWERFUL if not more powerful than the verbal interactions! Love is KEY, it’s the emotion that transcends and trumps every other emotion in a positive it way. Continual blessings.

  13. Thanks for sharing so eloquently Kate. So sad on so many elements. God Bless you and your family!

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About the Author

Kate Eller
Kate Eller

Kate Eller was a regional director of public affairs and marketing operations for Advocate Health Care. She enjoys road trips, dogs, minimalism, yoga, hiking, and “urban hiking.”