Trying to relate to the woman who acts profoundly different from the mother she always knew has been the challenge of Susan Fritts’ life.
“My mom was always my best friend and a loving person,” says Fritts, 55, of Durham. “But now, she yells, swears and is angry most of the time. I always want to make it better, but nothing seems to work.”
Fritts, longtime director of operations for a Portland law firm, is one of millions of adult children of Alzheimer’s disease patients who are grappling with how to interact with their very changed parents.
In 2012, Fritts started noticing disturbing changes in her mother, Mel Lane, now 86. Lane couldn’t remember things and would get inordinately upset when prompted. She’d uncustomarily holler at her husband Arthur.
“I kept hearing that it was just old age, but I knew there was something wrong beyond that,” recalls Fritts. “My mother pulled back from wanting to do things, which was unusual for her.”
Over time, behaviors like wandering away from home made it impossible for Lane to continue living with Arthur, 88, and she was moved to a Brunswick memory care unit about four months ago.
The changes have taken a toll on all the relationships in Fritts’ family. Most notably for her is how she relates to her dad.
“This has affected his enjoyment of life so much. They used to be so adventurous together. Now I get him to his appointments, make sure he eats and pay the bills. So my role is really different. It’s weird feeling like you’ve lost your parents but you haven’t lost your parents.”
Fritts recently skipped a vacation with her husband and children to stay near her parents. “Thankfully,” she says, “my husband is a really compassionate man.”
Her two brothers live out of state, and Alzheimer’s has affected her relationships with them as well. “There was a lot of denial at first, and that was difficult. But now, having them be able to acknowledge what’s happening and talk to me has been very helpful.”
Fritts has spent the years since her mother’s diagnosis educating herself about Alzheimer’s—and repeating a mantra that an in-the-know friend shared early on: “Just remember it’s the disease and not the person.”
To cope, she pours herself into work, prays, confides in close friends, finds great support through the Alzheimer’s Association and talks with people experienced in what she’s going through. “It’s consoling to talk with someone who understands.”
Patricia McCarthy worked for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for 23 years, was publisher of The Cape (Elizabeth) Courier for five years, and has been a freelance writer and editor for 35 years. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).