Nova Scotia

Cape Bretoner illustrates mother's Alzheimer's battle

Alison Uhma says drawing her mother's experience with the disease in a graphic novel helps her heal.

Alison Uhma says drawing her mother's experience with the disease in a graphic novel helps her heal

Alison Uhma's mother, Moira Ross, died in 2013 at age 59. (Alison Uhma)

A Cape Breton illustrator is working on a very personal piece of art. 

Alison Uhma, who lives in Sydney, decided to write and illustrate a memoir about her mother's journey with Alzheimer's disease in the format of a comic book. 

"It's a story I haven't seen told in this way before, and it's one that deserves telling and to be heard," said Uhma.

Her mother, Moira Ross, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's at age 52. She died in 2013 at age 59. 

"At the time I was in my 20s and still feeling like I needed a parent and found myself in a position where that parent wasn't there anymore," said Uhma.

"The role changed so much that I was something of a parent to her."

Healing through illustration

A longtime illustrator, Uhma said the process of creating this graphic novel is helping fit together the pieces of her grief and her relationship with her mother. 

"I've drawn my mom hundreds of times in the past few months, it feels like I'm spending time with her. And it's all kinds of different ways and trying to emulate her facial expressions and it's truly meaningful and I am removed from the grief now, so it feels less painful," said Uhma.

Uhma spent much of her early years with her father across North America. She moved back to Cape Breton to be with her siblings and mother after the diagnosis.

Uhma is using her memories and her mother's personal belongings to shape the work, including her mother's diary, photographs and cards received and sent.

Alison Uhma and some of her illustrations. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

The book will also have some memories from other family members, as Uhma describes the time of her mother's sickness as a shared experience.

Uhma said although difficult and fraught with layers of memories, this creative outlet helps.

"Drawing and bringing that text onto the page in a more living way has been enjoyable," she said.

The name of the book, From the Other One, comes from a poignant memory as the disease whittled away her mother's memory.

"I asked her if she had children and she said 'Yes' and when I asked her what are their names, and she said, 'Gavin, Lindsay' and then she thought for a really long time and then she looked at me and she made eye contact and she said, 'And the other one.'"

'She was still there'

Uhma said she can understand where her mother was coming from, as she had spent so much of her childhood away from Cape Breton.

"It's funny to me now, but at the time, [it was] heartbreaking," she said.

Uhma said her mother had a terrific sense of humour.

"Our relationship was like that a little bit, I was the other one in a lot of ways. And although she just couldn't get my name that day, that's something that she would have joked about at some point," said Uhma.

"She was still a beautiful person even though she wasn't the person that I had always remembered and she was constantly changing, she was still there."

Speaking out

Uhma said it's important for people to be able to speak about the disease and how families cope. 

"And you know I can't get onstage and do a monologue," said Uhma. "But I can perform on the page, I can draw out the text and I can create the illustrations and then people can read it."

Uhma said the grieving started before her mother even died.

"I just don't think that she ever thought that would be her own reality or her story. I never thought that I would be telling it."


From people around the corner to those around the world, Norma Jean MacPhee has more than a decade of experience telling their stories on the radio, TV and online. Reach Norma Jean at