Joy in the Time of Alzheimer’s

The Chicks are thrilled to welcome Susan McCormick, author-slash-physician-slash-amazing human being.
Susan’s Fog Ladies series celebrates senior sleuths. She joins us today to talk about unexpected gifts in difficult times. Take it away, Susan!

My mom would have loved the COVID stay-at-home orders. An excuse to hole up with her murder mystery books and cooking shows. Stay on the couch. Eat what you want because you have to keep your spirits and nutrition up, and no one will see the results anyway. My mom is no longer with us, but she would have thrived in this strange time.

I spent so many dinners at my mother’s retirement community’s dinner table, listening to the ladies belt out showtunes like “Marian, the Librarian” from Music Man and being asked four times in sixty seconds to repeat my name. Like many of us sandwich generation kids, we spend more time with our parents now than we ever did when we were younger.

Those years after my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease were incredibly hard. But I wouldn’t trade them for anything. And the stories, the fun comments, the joy of living in the moment… We had to laugh. Much better than crying.

I learned the secret rules of never asking questions, but just stating facts to set my mom up for an easy conversation. “It’s chocolate shakes and spelling bee today. I love chocolate shakes.” Then my mom could reply, “I’m good at the spelling bee. I’m going to win the big chocolate bar.” I learned the rule of going with my mom’s mind wherever it went. When I made anise Christmas cookies from my fifty-year-dead great-grandma’s recipe, my mom said, “Did you make these yourself or are they leftover from Grandma?”

The day we moved my mom from independent living to assisted living, the hallway was lined with old ladies in chairs, watching our procession of furniture and boxes. My sons and I moved her early in the morning, the only elevator reservation time allotted us. When we were almost done, one of the ladies pronounced about my teenage son, sour-faced due to the early hour, “He doesn’t look like much, but he sure gets the job done.”

That same son was part of a classical guitar orchestra that played at the retirement community frequently. After a beautiful solo by their lead guitarist, one man shook his head and said, “He gets paid for this?” Another man shuffled to the front and said, “It doesn’t sound any better from up here.”

My mom, without her filter of gentility, could be just as brazen. Looking out a window over the highway, she said, “I keep looking at that highway, but nothing exciting ever happens. That tanker truck could explode. That would be exciting.” To the physical therapist who wanted her to exercise her weak legs: “Go away, will you? I just want to lie here and molder.” And when she saw a flyer for a missing cat, she looked at the street and said, “Hmm. They might find a flat, splat cat.”

She was the same person, though, deep down. The essence of her personality never wavered. She was generous her entire life, offering her stick shift car to my son to learn on without hesitation, forgetting that she hadn’t driven in ten years and had sold the car long ago. She loved our dog, an enormous, slobbery Newfoundland. She couldn’t remember that Albert had eaten her expensive cashmere sweater or her favorite red shoes. She just knew she loved Albert. She remained a good speller to the end and won the chocolate bar the week she died.

These special times with our elderly loved ones are full of joy and laughter. As my mom would say, “So much fun I can’t stand it. It’s enough to gag a maggot.”

I have more information about Alzheimer’s disease on my website, as well as information on my book series The Fog Ladies featuring spunky senior sleuths with plenty of time on their hands to get into trouble.

Readers, Where do you find unexpected joy?


Susan McCormick is a writer and doctor who lives in Seattle. She graduated from Smith College and George Washington University School of Medicine, with additional medical training in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Susan served as a doctor in the U.S. Army for nine years before moving to the Pacific Northwest. She writes The Fog Ladies San Francisco Cozy Murder Mystery series, in which most of the characters are over seventy. She also wrote Granny Can’t Remember Me, a lighthearted picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons, and, until recently, a giant Newfoundland dog, Albert.


30 thoughts on “Joy in the Time of Alzheimer’s

  1. I love this so much. It brings back good memories of my parents (Dad, who had Alzheimer’s, and Mom, who had vascular dementia) when too often I tend to focus on the bad. Those meals with Mom at her assisted living facility were so much fun. The other ladies pretty much adopted me. I’m definitely picking up this series.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I loved those meals. Another thing I miss, and that brought me joy, was Bingo Friday with root beer floats. One son would often join us, loving root beer floats as he did, and my mom would play with her eyes closed because she couldn’t see well anyway, yet she still managed to beat him and sometimes even won the Bingo and the big Bingo chocolate bar. This would bring cries of outrage from the ladies playing with two good eyes. And it would bring me endless joy.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. What a beautiful post. My MIL had Alzheimer’s at the same time my beloved great-aunt had dementia. It was heartbreaking on both scores but fascinating to see the difference. I was doing some freelance writing for a health magazine at the time and got to interview both Glenn Campbell’s daughter and David Hyde Pierce about their experiences dealing with loved ones suffering from both diseases. It’s so hard. But there are those funny moments you caught so beautifully here.

    BTW, both your sons are gorgeous! And thanks for the visiting with us.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The illness is so sad, yet we tried to stay happy and my mom, living in the moment without any concept or worries about the future, was definitely content. She broke one hip and then the other, and I was devastated when she broke the second one because her recovery from the first was arduous, but she didn’t remember any of that and plowed along without fear.

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    1. Thank you very much. The Fog Ladies themselves may have to deal with dementia one of these days. Not in Book 3, thankfully. First draft complete. They only have to deal with a Newfoundland in Book 3.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks for sharing those stories with us, Susan. My older kiddo works in a memory care unit and was just telling me a bittersweet story about their favorite resident, a lovely 90 year old woman. May we embrace the happy moments!

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  4. Thanks for sharing your mother’s story, Susan. I found so many parallels to my own mother’s 20-year decline into dementia. What resonated with me was the joy you described. Even after Mom lost her eyesight and almost all of her memory, the essence of her—her generosity, her gratitude to helpers, her toe-tapping love of music, and her sense of humor remained to the very end.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My mom, who has a kind of dementia that comes and goes, was fixated on Martinis and Champagne yesterday, wondering when she was going to get hers!

    This is a beautiful post, Susan. So many of us are going through something similar with our families, it’s nice to hear each others’ stories. Thanks for visiting the Chicks today–your series sounds terrific!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a wonderful moment for her to be stuck in, Martinis and Champagne! Though she may not realize she already had hers. Once my mom and I were eating dim sum, I was stuffed, and we had paid our bills. My mom saw the cart roll by, and said, “Oh, I hope they come to our table next.” She was ready for a while second meal!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Really loved this post, Susan. I, too, spent a lot of time with my dad in memory-care facilities. We finally found a good one near our home in NH, in a cozy Victorian house he thought was a very nice hotel. Before that, though, my parents lived in a fancy FL retirement community. Hibiscus Pointe is the setting for my Ladies Smythe & Westin Mysteries, and my character Grace has Alzheimer’s. The memory unit played a central role in the 3rd book, Fashionably Late. Outside of my odd-couple co-sleuths, 70-something Dorothy and 20-something Summer (neighbors at the complex–Summer camps there in her late grandma’s condo), Grace gets the most fan mail! Can’t wait to read your latest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This sounds so fun! I love the co-mingling of the generations, and my Fog Ladies take a young doctor-in-training under their wings. Or vice versa.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What lovely memories of your mom — thanks for sharing with us! And Fog Ladies sounds fun. I enjoy series with older sleuths!

    My husband’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s. She had been a church pianist, but hadn’t played in years. One Christmas, she sat at the piano and began to play. She started playing the beginning of several hymns and songs, but they all quickly morphed into what the family called her saloon music! It was a great Christmas gift for all of us!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Susan, I love this so much! While neither of my parents had memory problems, they did both lose their filters. (My kids are quite worried about mine, since I have so little to begin with!) When my mom’s sodium levels dropped, she would spiral into bouts of paranoia which, while horrifying, were also really fascinating. One time she began accusing the staff of all kinds of weird stuff and later, when I apologized, they all just rolled their eyes … “it’s very common, we don’t take it personally.” Thank goodness! I’m so glad you have these good memories to hold on to.

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  9. The paranoia is interesting. My father-in-law thought swinging doors were men coming to get him. During the day he knew they were swinging doors, but when the light faded they were strangers.
    With decreased senses anyway, the waning light can definitely take its toll.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thanks for sharing, Susan! Congrats on your latest book!

    I both interned at the Alzheimer’s Association and volunteered in a memory care unit for a while. It’s so tough, but I did appreciate the value of being really present. I got to marvel at simple treasures, like pretty flowers. And I really enjoyed hearing memories, even when they were told multiple times. Pet therapy time, music hour, and even aromatherapy were also a lot of fun.


    1. My mom left murder mysteries, and in the beginning she could read the same book over and over and enjoyed each time. Soon, however, she could only read the first page. But she even enjoyed that.


  11. Oh, this is such a touching post. Alzheimer’s has been a part of our family life too and your perspective is just wonderful. Congratulations on your series and thank you for visiting us today.


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