When Her Memories Fail Her: My Mamaw’s Journey With Alzheimer’s Disease


MemoriesIf you met my Mamaw today, she would ask you your name every five minutes. She wouldn’t understand who you were or why you were there to see her. She would ask you if you were hungry or thirsty and if you said no, she’d ask you a few seconds later, never remembering that she had done so once or twice before.

My Mamaw, who skipped grades in elementary school because she was so smart, who held club office positions at Young High School, who took a bus to her job downtown and ate lunch at the S&S Cafeteria every day in the late 1950s before she married my Papaw, doesn’t remember if she made her bed or what she had for breakfast yesterday.

My Mamaw has Alzheimer’s Disease.

I remember the first time we, as a family, noticed something off about her. She had given Maddox (then about 2 ½ or 3) some red Jell-O for dessert. In typical Maddox fashion, Jell-O was everywhere; the table, the floor, his clothes. I immediately stripped him down to his diaper and washed and dried the clothes, in hopes they would be spared from permanent red dyed damage. A few hours later, as I was getting him dressed again, Mamaw asked him if he wanted Jell-O. “Umm no way, not after that disaster,” I answered for him. “What disaster?” She asked. “What are you talking about?” I looked into the den at my Papaw who was now watching us over the top of his newspaper. My Uncle stopped looking at the Kmart ad and moved his eyes to the kitchen. “Just then, Mamaw,” I said with a furrowed brow. “Just then? When he got the Jell-O everywhere? And we washed his clothes? Remember?” I looked at her as her face flushed. “Ohhhhhh. Yeahhhhhh.” She drew out the last parts of the word, a lighthearted laugh followed.

“She’s been doing that more and more,” Papaw later confided. “Your Dad, Uncle and I have been trying to get her to go get her memory checked.”

Over the next 6-8 months, Mamaw mysteriously found ways around going to get her memory tested. I think, deep down, she knew what they would say. Finally, my Uncle all but hog tied her and got her to go in. My phone rang that snowy winter afternoon in 2013, and my Uncle gave me the news. “Mom’s test results weren’t good. She has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s they said.” At first, I was in denial. I stared out the window and silently thought the doctors must have been wrong. MY Mamaw didn’t get Alzheimer’s. MY Mamaw was too fun and smart and “with it” to have a disease take all that away from her; from us. They put her on a medicine to slow the progression of her eventual decline, but it had no effect at best, and made her throw up violently at worst.

This past summer, about a week after I was let go from my job, my phone rang early in the morning. “Mamaw fell. The ambulance is rushing her to UT. She doesn’t know where she is,” then my Uncle’s voice cracked, “Its not good. Just get here.” I got to the ER and went back with her. She was pale and confused. Blood splattered all over the top of her robe from hitting her head on the bathtub. She couldn’t tell me where she was or why she was there. She asked me over and over again why her head hurt. I drove back to her house that afternoon and cleaned up the bathroom where she had fallen, then picked out some clothes and shoes for her stay at the hospital. Over the next few days she would repeatedly pat her head where the doctors had stapled her skull back together and ask if she had a bobby pin stuck in her hair.

I look back now and I remember all the times I had with her that I largely took for granted. How, the summer after she retired from the State Testing department at UT, we would steal away to Dollywood multiple times a week and see shows, ride all the rides (yes even the roller coasters… she was 65), and shop. How when my water broke with Maddox I called her to take me to the hospital and told her to please slow her Buick down on the highway — 75 was fast enough. How she stayed in the hospital room with me for 21 of the longest hours while I labored with him. “Mamaw. I can’t do it. I cannot push anymore. I can’t” I looked over and said to her. “Its too hard, Mamaw.” “Ashley, count to ten like the doctor said and look at me. I will count with you.” So she did. Until nearly 3am when her first great-grandson was brought into the world. I remember shopping at Target with her one spring day, where over fountain cokes she confessed to me that she was put on anti- depressants when my Papaw, a traveling salesman, left her for long trips with her two small sons, sometime in the mid 1960s, offering me some empathy when I felt like I just couldn’t get through this whole “new motherhood” thing quite as well as I thought I could.463d6d6f-652c-4cc6-817b-53b278d9bf50

I think a lot about what she must feel like now, in what is probably the worst stage of Alzheimer’s for the person suffering through it. Her memory is failing her more and more, yet it isn’t totally gone. She feels confused often and feels foolish when she can’t communicate her thoughts clearly. She is totally aware, yet unaware at the same time. Not yet so far gone that she needs round the clock care, but gone far enough that she can’t drive anymore, or be left alone for too long.

I read somewhere that typically an Alzheimer’s patient has eight years from diagnosis to the time when the disease takes them. If that is correct, Mamaw has about 4 ½ – 5 years left.

I cannot imagine walking this Earth without one of the best people on it, but I also cannot imagine what this is like for her. We don’t talk about it, she doesn’t like to; her disease remains the big pink elephant in the room, so to speak. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and about a million possible reasons why someone would get it, but nothing concrete to explain why this disease strikes. I’ve never lost anyone before, except a friend in college who drove drunk into a tree. Jack’s loss was sudden and unexpected. We have been loosing Mamaw for years now; all of us sort of collectively trying to process the inevitable.

I look back at pictures of her walking downtown, wearing heels and a skirt suit, carrying my Dad and Uncle into stores to shop; probably wrestling with them and begging them to be good like I do my boys. I think of her putting my Dad and Uncle to bed after a long day and sitting by the living room window at night, waiting to see Papaw’s headlights coming up the driveway and longing for him to be near, as I often do at night when Nathan’s work days spill over to the 12, sometimes 14 hour mark. I think of her going next door to Macy Trotter’s house, their combined five kids running wild, and see myself and my girlfriends trying to make it through the monotony of raising young babies when they need so much of you every single moment.

Mostly, I think of her selfless ways, how giving and kind she was and still is. How big she loves and how, even now, she’s still maintained some of her sense of humor.

My Mamaw won’t remember anything soon, but I will cherish my memories of her forever.


  1. My mamaw passed away 9 years ago. She had Alzheimer’s, so I know what you’re going through. It can be really rough watching someone you love so dearly lose their memory. Even though near the end of her life she didn’t know anyone or anything, I could still see her, she was still that same sweet and selfless woman I’ve always known. She was the one that chased me around the house with a switch, put a bandaid on my cut, and fixed me my favorite food. The memories I have of my mamaw are great ones! Spend as much time as you can with your mamaw, even when she doesn’t know who you are, you won’t regret it. I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. However you will make it through this. Cherish every moment together, lean on your friends and family, cry when you feel like crying, laugh at nothing, and remember your mamaw as the amazing woman she’s always been. You’re in my thoughts and prayers! Stay strong.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. This has really been hard for all of us and I feel so much for anyone else going through it. ❤️

  2. Thank you for sharing your story and for you and your son being in your Mamaw’s life. I have done a couple of intergenerational art programs with babies through people age 100, some with dementia. It has been the most fulfilling of any art program I have done. Children can bring so much joy to older adults. As difficult as it might be at times, enjoy every moment as a new moment with your son and Mamaw, together.


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