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Even After My Mom Stopped Recognizing Me, I Never Stopped Looking for Ways to Connect

Prevention logo Prevention 8/11/2021 Loretta Woodward Veney, as told to Marisa Cohen
Loretta Veney wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: When my mother, Doris, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, my family was in shock. But we still connect and communicate through a favorite toy. © Loretta Veney When my mother, Doris, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, my family was in shock. But we still connect and communicate through a favorite toy.

When my mother, Doris, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, at 77 years old, it was such a shock. Everyone says that, but for my family it really was. We had no genetic history of Alzheimer’s. My great-grandmother was still cooking for herself at age 100!

My mom and I had always been so close. We are fifth-generation Washingtonians, and I went to college and graduate school in D.C, so we always lived near each other and spent every birthday and holiday together. But she made me promise that I wouldn’t make her move in with me when she was old or sick. She never wanted to be a burden on me or my sister, and she even made me put that promise in writing. When she needed round-the-clock care, we found a wonderful group home for her.

Even though we had always shared everything, my mom had never been a particularly emotional person, so I couldn’t really tell how she felt when she first got the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. When the doctor told her she had dementia, the only thing she said was, “Oh, that’s bad now, isn’t it?” I told her it didn’t matter what happened, because I would always be there for her. And that’s a promise I’ve kept.

A way to connect—literally

As my mom started to become less verbal, I found that one way to get her to open up and communicate with me was to bring over a box of Legos. The building blocks have always been a part of my life: I was born prematurely and had a lot of allergies, so I couldn’t go outside a lot in the summer. My mom started buying me Legos to play with—not the ones the kids have now with spaceships and characters, just the plain old bricks. My sister and I would sit all day and build with them and be creative, and my mother told us we could be anything we wanted to be.

I never got rid of the Legos—I even use them in my work training security managers, to demonstrate how do things like evacuation exercises and drills. So when Mom was diagnosed, I started bringing them over to the group home. She would start out real quiet, but once I dumped out the bricks on the dining table and we started building with them, she would start to talk about how she felt. She told me she was worried about not being able to remember things, and we really would connect while we were building. I would also bring her puzzles with large pieces to play with, and she liked that, but she really brightened up when we played with the Legos. I even put a little gray-haired figure inside the houses we built, and she would say, “Look, it’s me in there!”

The hardest moment for me was about six years ago, when Mom stopped recognizing me. On my 55th birthday, her home threw a party for me and she didn’t know what was going on and got upset and threw her cake on the floor. I just sat in my car afterward and sobbed. But I knew I could still reach her in some way. She couldn’t remember my name—or that I’m her daughter—but as soon as I bring the Legos out, she would say, “This is fun, you’re a very nice person.” So I would joke that my name had changed from Loretta to “Very Nice Person.”

Roxanne Watson holding a baby: Doris Woodward with Legos © Loretta Veney Doris Woodward with Legos

There are other ways I find to connect with Mom, too. She still enjoys eating cake, and I bring her calendars with photos and magazines with a lot of pictures, especially travel and nature magazines. Another way we communicate without speaking is looking at my vacation photos. My husband and I traveled a lot before he passed away in 2016 and took a lot of pictures. Mom always wanted to travel, but never got the chance, so she just lived vicariously through us. I love to see the joy in her face when she looks at those photos, even if she doesn’t know who the people in the pictures are.


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In the last few years, my mother’s Alzheimer’s has progressed to a point that she doesn’t speak much at all, and she can’t manipulate the Legos anymore. I created a few gadgets with them, like fidget spinners, and she likes to hold those. Then, of course, the pandemic came, and that was so hard. The first lockdown was the worst 99 days of my life; I was so miserable, and it was the longest I had ever been separated from my mother.

I was talking to my best friend of 40 years, and I was just crying and crying about how much I missed my mom, and she just listened to me, and then a couple of weeks later a box arrived at my door. She had had created two pillows—one for me with a photo of me and mom, and the other for my mom with a photo of her, me, and my granddaughter. I called the group home and asked if I could come drop it off, and they said yes. When I arrived, they held open the door so I could see them hand my mom the pillow, and she just looked at it and laughed and said, “That’s me!” Then she hugged and hugged it, and I hug mine now when I’m feeling down.

Finding little moments of joy

When you’re a caregiver to someone with dementia, it can be emotionally exhausting, so you have to make an effort to find joy in the little things. At the beginning of the lockdown, I would take long walks in my neighborhood, because that’s all you could do. Usually, when I’m outside, I’m texting or listening to music, just not really paying attention.

But one day I was walking and I saw this cherry blossom tree. I’ve lived here 30 years and it was the first time I noticed this tree. It had little buds on it, and I was just staring at it and started taking pictures, and I saw this other lady taking pictures, so we started talking, and that’s how I met a new neighbor and enjoyed the beauty of this tree I had walked past so many times before. You have to embrace things and enjoy them in the moment, like my mother does.

It’s been a long time now since my mom has hugged me or knows who I am, but a few days before Christmas I dropped off some cookies for her. And just as the caregiver was turning around to walk back to the living room, my mom turned and waved to me. Just that moment, that acknowledgment, it felt like I had hit the lottery. It was the best thing ever.

This past March, my mom was sent to the emergency room with acute liver failure. I was granted special permission to stay with her in the hospital, and even though she couldn’t talk to me, we listened to music—gospel, jazz, and oldies—and I fed her and read out loud to her. I even found the hospital’s menu in a drawer and she held it and read it over and over, like it was the most fascinating thing in the world. We hummed and laughed out loud together, and it was so priceless to connect like that.

When the doctor came in the next morning, he said it was clear that my mom was responding to me being in the room. Even though she doesn’t know my name, I know she loves me, and I love her, and we will always find a way to connect to each other for as long as she has left.

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