Bay Area actor shares story of losing her mother who was living with Alzheimer’s
Karen DeHart has been a working Actor in the Local Bay Area theater scene for many years. Her mother, Loretta Welch, was a fixture in that community as well. Loretta was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and eventually stopped being able to attend shows. For Karen and her theater friends, it was like a light going dim.
Karen wrote a Facebook post about losing her mother both physically and emotionally in July 2021, a month before her mother passed. Karen’s post was converted into a blog in hopes that her story will raise awareness towards the 10 Warning signs of Alzheimer’s and encourage others to participate in the Silicon Valley Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
It started with her forgetting little things. “What play are we seeing?” “What time should I be at your house?” But everyone gets a little forgetful as they get older, right?
Then she got lost.
On nights Mom and I would go to the theater. Mom would drive to my house, I’d drive us to the theater or dinner, then she would drive home. She took the 10-minute path from my house to her house hundreds of times.
On this particular night, we had gone to a matinee and dinner. When we returned to my house, Mom got in the car to drive home. 40 minutes later Dad called and asked where Mom was.
We called her cell phone over and over and drove the route she would take to get home. After an hour of this, Mom pulled into the driveway. “Someone was tailing me,” said Mom. “I got nervous, so I turned too soon. Since it was dark, I got all turned around.”
“Why didn’t you answer you phone?” we asked.
“You are not supposed to talk on the phone when you drive,” she pertly answered.
It didn’t occur to her to pull over or to find some street signs and call us. What bothered me more than her getting lost, was the fact she couldn’t figure out a logical way to get herself out of the situation.
Noticing the signs
We started watching more closely, looking for signs. Mom was wearing the same clothes day after day and she wasn’t showering. This was so out of character to my neat, fastidious, fashionable mom.
I noticed her “zoning out” as we drove. She seemed to be in a trance, not responding to my questions or noticing things I would point out on the road. Then she would suddenly check back in and continue the conversation.
Going to Church
The event that made me realize we really had a problem was when we were cleaning up the office on a Saturday. She mentioned we should go to church the next day and asked me to confirm the service time. I looked it up online and told her 10:45.
“10:45? Why 10:45?” Mom asked.
“Maybe they were fed up with people being late to the 10:30, so they said NEVERMIND, we’ll make it 10:45!” I joked. Mom laughed.
That night Mom called me and asked again when church started. I told her 10:45. “10:45? Why 10:45?” Mom asked. I hesitated and made the same joking response. She laughed like she had never heard it.
Mom called me Sunday morning and, once again, asked me what time church started. “10:45? Why 10:45?” Same question, same response. I arrived at church at 10:45 and she whispered. “We’ve been here for 15 minutes, I thought church started at 10:30!”
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
We brought her in to the memory clinic at Kaiser where they gave Mom a pretest to see if she needed a complete evaluation. She failed spectacularly, not even getting half of the points. They gave her the full assessment and she did even worse. She was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
She was angry that her driving privileges were taken away, and livid that we hired a companion for her. Still, she seemed to settle into a routine, accepting her new normal, with occasional bouts of frustration with her family who wanted to “control her life.”
Losing her vision
Our path down the Alzheimer’s trail seemed to be slow and steady, until she had a high blood pressure stroke in July 2020. The bleed was on the part of the brain that controls her vision. It has been a year, and only the peripheral part of her vision has returned. The lack of vision put her confusion into overdrive, and we have had a steady decline ever since.
The mom I know
Mom was so funny, with a quick wit and a ready laugh. She was charming and flirtatious and took a loving interest in her family and all of our friends. She was such a delightful companion, and we could communicate our thoughts with just a look or a hand squeeze.
That Loretta is gone. She has been replaced with a very confused little lady. She sometimes looks serene, listening to Roger Whitaker and Doris Day while drifting in and out of naps. She sometimes has a knit brow where she looks very concerned. She is trying so hard to follow the conversation or understand what is happening around her. She sometimes just stares blankly ahead with no expression at all.
Occasionally she will touch my face when I kiss her and look towards my eyes with such a sweet expression and say, “I love you.” She always gives you the pat, pat, pat on your back when you hug her, in that loving way we mothers know. I look for and take comfort in those moments.
It takes a team
I could not, could NOT handle this if it weren’t for my sister and my dad. We are “Team Loretta” and each has our part in Mom’s care. Our husbands are so patient with all the time we spend looking after Mom, and our sons check in with her as often as they can. Although we know that no matter how hard we work it won’t get better, we are marching arm in arm trying to make Mom comfortable and happy in the time she has left.
So now we wait and watch as our mom slips away. Every day is a loss. The person who called Alzheimer’s “the long goodbye” had it right. We say goodbye to a little more of our momma every day. It is the oddest thing to mourn someone who is still alive. To miss someone so terribly who is sitting right in front of you.
We love you, mom. We hope you know how much.
Loretta died in August 2021.
Karen is honoring her mother by raising funds for the Silicon Valley Walk to End Alzheimer’s. You can donate to or join Karen’s team, Calendar Girls, or form your own team and join us for Silicon Valley Walk to End Alzheimer’s on October 16 at Excite Ballpark in San Jose. Not in the Silicon Valley? Find a walk near you at alz.org/walk.