Life with Alzheimer's: A daughter's memoir

Tangles-225.jpgFirst aired on The Next Chapter (10/25/10)

It's been called a rising tide. Alzheimer's is on the increase in Canada. For the families whose lives it touches, watching their loved ones disappear is an incredibly frightening reality.

It's something Sarah Leavitt's family knows quite well. The graphic novelist's mother, Midge, started showing symptoms of the disease in 1996 when she was only 52, and Leavitt saw her educated, boisterous mother slowly drift away. Six years later, she died.

During that time, Leavitt carefully documented what her family was going through. The result is her moving and intensely honest graphic memoir, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother and Me.

"Mostly it was about trying to keep her as she was floating away," Leavitt told The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers. "It was really important for me to remember my mom this way. I remember her as she was before she got sick, and I also want to remember her as she was during her illness."

Leavitt may have started the project to chronicle her mother's experiences with Alzheimer's, but the memoir is much more than that. It's also a striking portrayal of how the illness touched those surrounding her mother. We see her father transition from partner to full-time caregiver at the same time as Leavitt and her sister Hannah struggle to understand their changing relationship with their mother.

Leavitt's memoir also lays bare the loneliness that accompanies the progress of the disease. As Alzheimer's isolates Midge, making it more difficult for her to follow and participate in conversation, family friends start to drift away. In a particularly moving section of the memoir, Midge states she no longer feels like a real person.

"It's different from somebody having a physical illness," Leavitt said. "Somebody losing their mind is a scary thing to be near, whether they have dementia or a mental illness. [...] (People) don't know, when they ring the doorbell, if my mom comes to the door, what will she say to them?"

Leavitt hopes that her memoir will help people understand what it's like to live with Alzheimer's.

"Just somebody coming by and sitting with my mom and talking for an hour would have been a huge thing," Leavitt said. "I think that's kinda my public service announcement."

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