It's a cosmic question: Who are you if you lose your mind?
Where does the unique "you" — your memories, humor and dreams — go when your body's still here but your brain stops working? This fundamental and heartbreaking question is at the core of a compelling film that will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday on KCTS-TV. Part of the "About Us" series showcasing the works of Northwest filmmakers, "Quick Brown Fox" was produced by Seattle filmmaker Ann Hedreen and directed by her and her husband, Rustin Thompson. It's an intensely personal story that follows the shattered life of Hedreen's mother, Arlene, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at 66.
She had been brilliant, the smartest kid in her class growing up in Butte, Mont., which is now so polluted from copper mines that it's a major Superfund site.
She went to college for a year but dropped out, married and had her first baby by the time she was 20. Life was hard. She married twice, divorced twice, bore six children, married again in her 40s and gained three stepchildren, then almost immediately lost her husband to cancer, then lost her father four months later.
"As we were putting this film together," says Hedreen in the film, "the question people asked us most often was: When did it start? When and why and how? You can drive yourself crazy trying to guess. Was it all those toxic mud pies she made as a girl ... or was it the emotional steeplechase of her first two failed marriages? Of divorcing at 25? Or was it that fateful year, 1977, when everything bad that can happen, did?"
Alzheimer's is more common in women than men. "I sometimes wonder if having less control over the events of your life stresses your brain in special ways. Or was it none of the above and just rotten luck?"
The film is rich with old Super-8 home movies and still photos, showing Arlene's bright eyes and happy smile for much of her life. The contrast with a year ago when the film was made — when she was 72, her eyes dull and vacant, unable to talk — demonstrates the true horror of this disease. Nobody's home anymore. It reminds me of my mother who died of the disease three years ago. That vacant look will haunt me forever.
As most families do, Hedreen and her siblings noticed their mother's memory lapses long before the diagnosis and dismissed them because she seemed so healthy. In her 50s, teaching became a nightmare; she took early retirement. By the time the diagnosis was made a few years later, she'd declined enough not to comprehend the full horror of what she had, the daughters believe. At the same time, she was relieved to know she had a disease, and it wasn't her fault.
One of the things the family regrets most is that, when they moved her out of her home, they chose a retirement community that did not specialize in Alzheimer's.
At the time, she said, they couldn't imagine a future in which she'd need more intensive care. Two years later, the unimaginable became reality. The family had to move her again and she became so disoriented and violent, she landed in the locked gero-psychiatric unit of a local hospital. Today she lives in an adult family home that specializes in people like her.
"Quick Brown Fox" isn't tragic. It's intelligently, articulately put together, with irony and laughter and love. You can find more information at www.QuickBrownFoxFilm.com.
We all say we want to stay at home as we grow older, yet few have a clue how to put the pieces together to make it work. How do you hire someone to come in? What's the difference between a homemaker and personal-care services? What does Medicare cover? Will your long-term care insurance policy pay? How, in fact, do you get your hair cut — or your dog groomed — if you can't leave your house?
So, while staying at home may be the best choice, it also can be the most complex, forcing you and your family to juggle a multitude of balls. Clearly it's a choice that requires conscious decision-making and advance planning.
On Saturday, Oct. 23, Overlake Hospital and several other sponsors will hold a half-day conference called, "Home Sweet Home: Strategies and Resources for Staying in Your Own Home as You Age." I'm the keynote speaker, followed by a panel of experts who will address the basics: physical well-being, adaptive technology, legal issues and financial planning. A resource fair featuring more than 35 different in-home service providers will cap the program.
The session runs from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, 1717 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue. No advance registration is necessary, and the fee is $5, including refreshments.
Liz Taylor's column runs Mondays
in the Northwest Life section.
A specialist on aging and long-term care, she consults with individuals and teaches workshops on how to plan for one's aging — and aging parents. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. You can see all of her columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/.