When facing Alzheimer's: A sister's story
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Aug 08, 2012 | 1197 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DELLA HARVEY shared stories of the two sisters she lost to Alzheimer’s disease.
DELLA HARVEY shared stories of the two sisters she lost to Alzheimer’s disease.
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The below portrait of her late sister, Mayme, at the age of 19 still reminds Harvey of the good times they had together when they were young.
The below portrait of her late sister, Mayme, at the age of 19 still reminds Harvey of the good times they had together when they were young.
slideshow
The last time Della Harvey ever saw her late sister, she offered her a hug. Her sister's response was to violently push her away.

She just didn't remember who the person trying to hug her was anymore. She wondered why on earth a stranger would just assume she would be OK with being hugged.

The sisters had done everything together growing up. In fact, Della, Mayme and their younger brother Holbert were like “The Three Musketeers,” Harvey said. They stayed close even through late adulthood — that is, for as long as Mayme could remember that they were close.

For many people with Alzheimer's disease, forgetting the people who love them is a normal, everyday thing.

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive form of dementia that is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Stages of the disease range from simple memory loss to difficulty remembering how to do things like walk or use a toilet.

“There's absolutely no cure. That's what's so heartbreaking,” Harvey said, pointing to a black-and-white photo of a much younger Mayme before she had Alzheimer's. “She looked like herself then. They go from this,” she said, glancing at the photo, “to not even knowing you exist.”

Harvey, an 87-year-old Benton resident and retired nurse, lives with her husband, Bruce, and their daughter. She is the mother of six grown children who have had jobs in fields ranging from nursing to truck driving to working for the military.

She worked as a nurse for some 47 years before she retired at the age of 65. She was licensed to work in four different states, and she most recently worked in the Athens area.

“It's been a busy life," Harvey said. "But it's been a good life.”

Harvey has lost two of her older sisters to the complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

As Harvey sat at her kitchen table against the backdrop of lace-trimmed curtains, she started to read the last stanza of a poem she wrote in memory of them, one questioning why time stole so many of her sisters' memories of the times they spent together.

“Time, oh time, what have you done? One sister sits unknowing in the morning sun and one uncaring what life has become, both showing signs of your passing.”

Harvey was one of nine children, and, besides Mayme, her sister Altha also died with Alzheimer’s. The most recent was Mayme — in March. Before they passed away, Harvey played a role in caring for them.

The hardest part was watching the disease change her sisters’ personalities and cloud their memories, she said.

“It’s a lot harder on the family than the patient,” Harvey said, explaining that the patient often does not recognize the changes that are happening to them.

She said Mayme would sometimes “get violent” when she did not know what was happening around her. Harvey said she would sometimes have to hide her sister’s medication in some food for her to take it.

Harvey suspects another relative might be showing some of the earliest signs of the disease, but she cannot be certain without a doctor’s diagnosis. While it can run in families, it is not very often that two or more members of an immediate family have it, she said. She recounted a conversation she had with a nurse at a hospital in Chattanooga who told her she had never before seen three people in the same family showing signs of Alzheimer’s.

Again, she reads.

“One holds the memory of both in her heart, and she longs for a time when two little girls ran free on a hill, laughing and dreaming of what they could be.”

Harvey and her siblings would play on the farmland around their Tennessee home growing up, and they dreamed big dreams. She knows this because her sisters talked about them incessantly. The seven girls in her family would annoy their brothers with all their girl talk, she said.

“We used to stay up all night talking,” Harvey said of herself and her six sisters, adding that her parents sometimes had to get up and shush them in the middle of the night. “We was young. We was full of life.”

Many years have passed since those loudly whispered childhood conversations. The siblings, with the exception of one sister who died at age 9 from an infection, all grew up, and many had families of their own. All but three have died, but only two were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“My health is not as good as it was, but the rest of us escaped it,” Harvey said.

Harvey said a lot of people have misconceptions about Alzheimer’s. She pointed out that many people assume it can be prevented by leading an active lifestyle, but even those who stay active into their older years aren’t immune from getting the disease.

“You can’t go by that, though,” Harvey said. She shared what she had learned about former University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt’s battle with Alzheimer’s. “She definitely had outside interests.” 

She said another misconception is that only women can be affected by Alzheimer’s. Men get the disease almost as often as women, Harvey said.

Harvey said she is thankful for the successes she and her family have had. She re-emphasized that she feels her life has been both busy and good. Despite the her troubles, she has had a good life.

So did Altha and Mayme, she said. What saddened her was realizing that her sisters could not remember too much about the good lives they had lived before they were hit with the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Though Mayme lost a daughter to breast cancer before she died, both Mayme and Altha left behind families who wished the sisters could have kept more of their memories with them.

Harvey believes life is good. But it is also bittersweet.

Harvey continued her poem as she shared the stories of the two sisters she lost to the disease.

“Time, oh time, where did you go? Streaking through the night skies, taking our hopes and dreams.”