Family

Most people won’t confront a relative about Alzheimer’s. This woman knew it was time

Cecilia Gray came home from work, only to smell the dreadful odor again. She knew just where it came from.

She walked through her living room and straight into the kitchen to find a pot on the stove coated with the burnt remains of food that had been cooking for hours.

She confronted her mother, Dolores Martinez-Graves, who had moved in with her family in Lee’s Summit that February in 2016. How did this happen?

Martinez-Graves not only could not remember what she cooked, she did not even remember cooking that day at all.

It was a scene that played out several times, though these accidents never resulted in a fire — “just burnt pots and pans,” said Gray.

Gray noticed other changes in her mother’s behavior. “She would start to put things in places that didn’t belong — like washing her cellphone.”

“I was scared for her and her safety,” said Gray, glancing at her mother seated next to her on their couch on a recent afternoon. So she confronted her mother in a different way: She asked her mother’s doctor to do a basic cognitive assessment. It was then at age 84 that Martinez-Graves was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

A survey by the Alzheimer’s Association revealed that 9 out of 10 Americans experiencing memory loss would want others to tell them. Yet nearly 3 out of 4 Americans would feel reluctant to share those concerns.

Gray was different. She didn’t wait to tell her mother she was worried. And after the diagnosis, the family tried to learn all about the disease.

“We started to educate ourselves because she had it long before we knew,” said Gray. “It would’ve been different if she was diagnosed in her 60s.”

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Cecilia Gray asked her mother, Dolores Martines-Graves, who was in this photo. Martinez-Graves listed everyone until she got to an unfamiliar face. Gray asked, “Who is that?” Martinez-Graves responded, “I don’t know.” Gray said, “It’s you.” Martinez-Graves was shocked. Alexia Diamond adiamond@kcstar.com

Martinez-Graves used to be so active, even a couple years ago. She would cook, paint and be social with everyone who would visit her.

Asked what she likes to do in her free time, she responded with a quiet “I don’t know.”

Seated around the living room, Gray’s husband, children and other relatives chimed in, listing her favorite things — like reading and seeing her grandchildren.

“It affects her short-term memory first,” said Gray. Her mother can keep up with a conversation, Gray said, but, “she can’t really add to it.”

With teary eyes, Gray said the hardest part about Alzheimer’s is “you lose that person, long before you lose that person.”

It’s irreversible, it has no cure and no way to truly slow it down. More than 5.6 million people over the age of 65 are living with the sixth leading cause of death in America. It kills more people than breast and prostate cancer combined, but it’s not a death sentence.

“Life doesn’t end at diagnosis,” said Juliette Bradley, director of communications at the Alzheimer’s Association Heart of America Chapter, which is promoting discussion about the disease for Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. “People want to live their lives. They want to be able to contribute to something.”

In Missouri, 110,000 people over the age of 65 are experiencing memory loss, and their 317,000 caregivers are providing unpaid care for them, valued at $4.5 billion, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In Kansas, with a smaller population, the amounts are about half that.

The local Alzheimer’s Association has partnered with several organizations to help those who live with Alzheimer’s, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kansas City Library, which offer special programs and social engagement groups.

“We want people to feel they’re still a part of their community,” said Bradley. She continued to list places in Kansas City that offers a sense of community in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association.

The Nelson-Atkins museum designs free monthly tours for individuals with memory loss and the Kansas City Library hosts programs such as Movies & Memories — for those who are feeling a little bit nostalgic.

For more information on Alzheimer’s and support, go to Alz.org.

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