When Mom Has Alzheimer's, A Stranger Comes For Christmas : Shots - Health News The holidays can be difficult for families dealing with Alzheimer's, especially if the person with the disease is the one who used to be the heart and soul of Christmas.

When Mom Has Alzheimer's, A Stranger Comes For Christmas

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Today in Your Health, a new test for hearing loss. It's actually a test you can take over the phone.


But let's hear first a story about the holiday season and how difficult it can be for families dealing with Alzheimer's. It can be especially difficult if the person with the disease is the one who used to organize family gatherings. Vanessa Rancano visited one such family to find out how it's coping with the holiday.

VANESSA RANCANO, BYLINE: On the Northern Virginia farm where Helen Downs spent her childhood, Christmas meant a freshly butchered hog and an epic family meal. When she had her own children, Helen brought this spirit of abundance to their home in Fairfax.

TERRY DOWNS: When I think about Christmas growing up, I remember my mom cooking in the kitchen for hours.

RANCANO: That Helen's son, Terry Downs. He and his wife Mary still get excited talking about the feasts his mother made - turkey and glazed ham, two kinds of stuffing, cinnamon yeast rolls.

MARY DOWNS: His mom just put out a spread. And I mean, and she did it all. I mean, she did everything from soup to nuts.

RANCANO: Helen wasn't just the cook. She was the gift giver, the decorator, the heart of Christmas. So when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and moved in with Terry and Mary, the big celebration fell to them.

M. DOWNS: These are all your ornaments.


M. DOWNS: You're going to decorate a tree. We're going to put a tree right here. You like that?

H. DOWNS: Oh, yeah. I always had a Christmas tree. I've always had one.

RANCANO: Caring for Helen as her mind deteriorates has never been easy. But every year, the holidays make things harder.

T. DOWNS: What is that, mom?

H. DOWNS: Looks like a reindeer.

T. DOWNS: That's right. Who made that?

H. DOWNS: I don't know. Who made it?

T. DOWNS: Raymond did.

M. DOWNS: Raymond made those too.

T. DOWNS: Your husband.

H. DOWNS: Raymond did that?

T. DOWNS: Yes.

M. DOWNS: Yeah.

H. DOWNS: Oh, I want to keep this then. Can I have it?

T. DOWNS: (Laughter) Yes.

M. DOWNS: Yes, you can. You can have it.

RANCANO: For Terry, it's hard to see his mother's ever-worsening condition. It's been seven years since Helen moved in with them. And caring for her is beginning to take its toll.

T. DOWNS: We're tired, and we're trying to just get through Christmas now versus maybe celebrate Christmas.

RUTH DREW: There are families in every town, in every state, in every county across the country that are dealing with the realities of Alzheimer's disease.

RANCANO: Ruth Drew runs the national helpline for the Alzheimer's Association. Her advice is to keep things simple, and ask for help. That's what Mary's learned to do.

M. DOWNS: That's the biggest thing about Christmas for me, is that I don't have to make it perfect anymore, that Christmas is kind of messy (laughter).

T. DOWNS: Hey, mom, who is that?

H. DOWNS: My little Santa Claus.

T. DOWNS: Yeah, that's Santa Claus. You still recognize Santa Claus. It doesn't get any better than that (laughter). That's great.

RANCANO: Terry says Helen can still find joy in the present, even if she can't remember the past. Vanessa Rancano, NPR News.

GREENE: All right, we're wishing that family a great holiday.

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