Posted May 18, 2003
Reviewed by Jon Caroulis
Detailing the anguish of caring for a mother with Alzheimer's.
Persons stricken with Alzheimer's disease die two deaths: Long before their physical passing, patients lose their sense of identity, forgetting loved ones and even themselves.
Eleanor Cooney discovered this when her brilliant, effervescent mother was diagnosed with the illness. What followed were 18 months of hell, chronicled in Death in Slow Motion: My Mother's Descent Into Alzheimer's, a brutally honest and brutally told memoir.
Cooney lays out the experience: "If you don't believe Alzheimer's is the equivalent of death, try living with it for a year and a half. It's worse than death. In the long interval before actual physical death, the afflicted person is insidiously replaced by an impostor.
"And you yourself, in protracted up-close-and-personal-daily contact, also become a grotesque parody of what you once were."
Mary Durant was a talented writer who, after landing a job at the New York Journal-American, was later posing in ads for the paper - she was that attractive. And witty and caring, with a zest for life she tried to pass on to her daughter and son. Her third husband, Michael, was 12 years younger than she, but they were soul mates, madly in love until he died at 55.
Children of Alzheimer's patients are also victims of the illness, as Cooney learns as she tries to juggle a career and a relationship with an elderly person who needs more care than a baby, in a situation that only worsens.
Cooney and her partner, Mitch, move her mother from Connecticut to live with them in Northern California. As Durant becomes more difficult to care for, Cooney suffers from sleep deprivation, as well as guilt when she considers placing her mother in a home. As her relationship with Mitch becomes strained, she needs vodka and Valium to get through the day.
Realizing they can no longer care for her mother, Cooney and Mitch decide to place her in a retirement home, or a skilled nursing facility, or an Alzheimer's facility. Cooney discovers there are big differences among the three. At one facility, her mother was overmedicated and eventually restrained in a jacket. Reliable care can cost as much as $200 a day, and insurance may not cover it.
A novelist who has written books set in ancient China, Cooney writes a stark prose that is vivid, riveting and stylish. She keeps the reader hooked by also writing about her mother's remarkable life and of Mike, a truly wonderful man. There are anecdotes of growing up in Connecticut that Cooney likens to a John Cheever story, in which characters are driven by demons to illicit behavior.
Cooney is hard on herself. Eventually, she learned of an advocacy group for Alzheimer's caregivers, and placed her mother in a facility that adequately cares for her.
Alzheimer's took Cooney's mother away from her. In return, she has given us this absorbing book, which if nothing else will scare - yes, scare! - any adult with living parents.
Death in Slow Motion
My Mother's Descent Into Alzheimer's
By Eleanor Cooney
HarperCollins. 272 pp. $23.95
Posted May 18, 2003
Jon Caroulis lives and writes in Elkins Park.