In early 2000, author Sharon Marchisello’s mother, Lolita, seemed to understand that something was different and once told her daughter “Losing your mind is a terrible thing.” She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the whole family was learning how to adjust to life with a loved one who was quickly changing.
Years later, with past conversations with Lolita still on her mind, Sharon was prompted to write a mystery thriller book titled Going Home. She wanted to explore what it would be like to question a witness (or suspect) with memory issues.
I recently had my own Q&A conversation with Sharon about her mom and her research for Going Home.
What were some of the early signs that your mother was developing Alzheimer’s?
We lived in different cities, so I probably missed a lot of the early signs. I remember she’d repeat herself a lot, and ask the same questions over and over. I wrote it off to her not listening to me. I also noticed that when she read a magazine, she’d always put a checkmark at the top of an article she’d finished. (My brother and I used to laugh at this. “Can’t she tell if she’s already read something?” we’d ask ourselves.) And she was always a list-maker, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a sign of dementia.
Was Lolita in good health with the exception of Alzheimer’s?
She was in very good health into her late seventies–until she got a diagnosis of lung cancer. (And she’d never smoked a cigarette in her life.) They found the tumors when they ran routine tests before a scheduled hip replacement surgery. They ended up canceling the hip replacement and removing one of her lungs. After her surgery, Alzheimer’s really manifested itself, and she wasn’t able to live on her own again. It seemed like she never came out from under the anesthesia.
I was not aware of a link between anesthesia with surgery and Alzheimer’s. What is the story there? Did the doctors share this risk with you?
I didn’t talk to her doctors; my brother might have had that conversation. My mom was quite independent up until the time she went in for her surgery. We’d made arrangements for her to go to a nursing home for after-care when her surgery was over. She ended up staying there three months, and even when she was released, she needed in-home care.
I remember a friend of mine told me about the effects of anesthesia on the elderly, and I read articles about that afterward.
Part of the problem too was that I think my mother gave up when she was diagnosed with cancer. She assumed it would kill her, and she almost seemed disappointed when it didn’t. When I saw her in the nursing home (and afterward, when she was back at home), she seemed very uninterested in life. She wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t do her physical therapy, she didn’t want to do much except stare at the TV or sleep. I’m sure those habits contributed to the dementia, and I believe she suffered from depression as well.
What types of things were you able to do for your mom that brought her joy or made her smile?
There wasn’t a lot of joy in her life the last year or so. Things I used to do, like cook for her, show her pictures of my travels, barely produced a reaction. Especially not cooking her favorite foods; she all but stopped eating. (One of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is difficulty swallowing; the body forgets how to do it.)
She used to love watching the Dallas Cowboys football games. One Sunday, we watched the game together, and the Cowboys lost. Mom was devastated. She took a nap afterward. Later, my brother called, and she told him all about the game. “We won! We pulled it out,” she told him. I suspect she was remembering a different game, but it was real to her.
How did you manage working full-time and spending time with your mom?
I worked in Atlanta, and my mother lived in Tyler, Texas. Fortunately, my job was with an airline, so I was able to fly there free a couple of times a month. I still had to rent a car and drive two hours from the airport to her house, so it made for a grueling weekend. (And my free pass travel is standby only, so I didn’t always get on the first flight I tried.)
Did Lolita have siblings and if so, did they suffer from any type of dementia?
My mom had a younger brother and an older sister. As far as I know, neither had cognitive difficulties.
Her brother pre-deceased her; her sister lived to be 89, and her mind was sharp until the end.
The family did have some history of mental illness and depression, however. One of her aunts spent time in a mental institution. (I didn’t get a lot of details; she died before I was born.) Two of my cousins suffered from depression, and one committed suicide at age 31.
What was the time span between the surgery and your mom’s passing?
My mom’s surgery was in December 1999 and she died in March 2001. So she lived a little over a year with Alzheimer’s (that we knew about). The cancer didn’t resurface, but she succumbed to pneumonia. She was 78 when she died.
Were you ever able to take Lolita out for short trips such as a scenic drive or to buy her something new at a store nearby?
My mom spent three months recovering from her surgery in a nursing home. When she went back to her own home, we hired round-the-clock care. The caregivers occasionally took her out, and the family did a few times when we visited. She had purchased season tickets to the civic theatre, and one of her caregivers took her to several plays.
Is there anything you wish you had known on ways to interact with your mom, but only learned after she had passed?
I think it’s important to be patient and respectful.
My mother and I were never close, like a lot of mothers and daughters are. Sometimes I regret that.
I’m curious about your book Going Home. When was it published and can you share a couple of examples of the “techniques” the character used in questioning the witness (or suspect) with memory issues?
It was published in 2014 by Sunbury Press. It was my first novel to get published. Some of the conversations with Lola in Going Home were based on real conversations I had with my own mother. A lot of them go in circles and become almost humorous. In the book, no one can tell if she’s relating an incident that’s relevant to the investigation, or remembering something that happened years ago.
For example, when the crime scene investigators make them leave the house, Michelle (the protagonist) and Lola (her mother with Alzheimer’s) stay with a neighbor across the street. This neighbor had been Michelle’s babysitter when she was a child. After they’ve been sitting there for a while, chatting, having tea, Lola walks up to the neighbor and says. “I know you. You were over at my house this morning, babysitting my kids.”
That’s an interesting ambiguity! For your research, did you speak to or know of any law enforcement who have actually faced this situation? Or worse, needed to arrest someone with dementia?
I didn’t interview anyone specifically with dementia in mind, but my husband’s cousin, a former law enforcement officer, was one of my beta readers. Also, I emailed a GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigations) representative who had been a guest at our Sisters in Crime meeting with specific questions about police procedures.
The policemen in Going Home don’t have a lot of experience with dementia suspects. They try to treat Lola like a normal witness, and she frustrates them. Also, there’s a lot of history and animosity between them and Michelle; they’ve known each other since grade school.
You referenced Sisters in Crime. What is that?
Sisters in Crime is a national organization for mystery writers and readers. Its original mission was to combat discrimination against women in the crime fiction field. Although our membership is mostly female, we do allow men to join, and more and more are becoming involved in our group.
Atlanta, where I live, has a local Sisters in Crime chapter, and we meet once a month, often bringing in a guest speaker who is a subject matter expert. We’ve hosted police detectives, arson investigators, PIs, medical examiners, prosecutors, crime scene clean-up teams, etc. Great resources for writers of crime fiction!
What was the most surprising question or wise comment your mom ever shared with you even as she was advancing with this disease? (A sign that her brain still had lucid, insightful moments.)
You mentioned her saying “losing your mind is a terrible thing.” And she also often lamented the fact that her own mother passed away suddenly in her sleep.
Even though she often couldn’t remember what we’d just talked about, she could recount in vivid detail stories from her childhood. Alzheimer’s sufferers tend to lose short-term memory first; long-term memories last a bit longer.
Fortunately, she never forgot my name or the fact that I was her daughter.
Sharon likes to travel, volunteer and is the author of a second book Secrets of the Galapagos published in 2019. To learn more about Sharon, purchase her books or contact her, I’ve included her links below. I would like to thank Sharon for an interesting and candid conversation.
Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord Magazine brought Sharon and I together and I wanted to share Sally’s review of Going Home which she just posted last week.
Social Media Links:
http://sharonmarchisello.blogspot.com/ (Personal Finance blog, Countdown to Financial Fitness)