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‘It got to be more than we could handle.’

A La Jolla family shares its experience with Alzheimer’s

One particular recollection stands out foremost in the minds of La Jollan Jack Talbot and his daughter, Mary Talbot Fee, about their wife and mother, Angela Schimmenti Talbot, who succumbed June 16 at age 80 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

It concerned an event that took place while Angela, an accomplished singer and actress, was at a local assisted living center housing dementia patients near the end of her life.

“I brought down a video of Angela performing her old, American songs,” said Talbot, “and played it for Angela and about 10 or 15 other people. Her reaction was unbelievable.”

“She loved it,” said Fee. “She was laughing and crying at the same time.”

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“They couldn’t believe that person up there was the same one as in here,” added Talbot. “The help was all crying.”

“Yeah, she (mother) knew it was her,” said Fee. “She did. She laughed and cried. She was happy to get the attention. We put up pictures of her acting so that people around her would know who she is - was. It’s important: to make them feel like they’re a part of life. They have awareness, even though it’s limited.”

The Talbots know the toll that Alzheimer’s exacts, not only on the victim, but also on everyone whose lives they’ve touched.

They were willing to tell their story in the hopes it might provide insight for other families also afflicted.

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Talbot said the hardest part of the ordeal for him was trying to take over and handle all the responsibilities assumed by his wife of nearly 59 years. “You are dependent on this woman, this wife, for quite a few things - cooking, judgment as far as the house is concerned. I found all sorts of things: cleaning, doing the dishes, making sure there was enough toilet paper, taking inventory, things she always took care of,” he said.

Talbot recalled his wife had uncanny insight into certain things. For one, she convinced him to invest in Qualcomm stock when it was a fledgling company long before its stock value really took off. She also convinced him to purchase their home, against his wishes at the time. “I said, ‘I can’t afford it,” Talbot said. “She said, ‘Oh, let’s do it anyway.’ It turned out to be an incredible investment.”

For Angela Schimmenti Talbot, the onset of Alzheimer’s occurred about age 75. The signs were unmistakable. “She would wear all her jewelry at once,” said her daughter. “She would put her clothes on wrong, put on two pairs of pants. Funny things. Because I was a preschool teacher, I started adapting the way I related to her down to her level. She knew she had a problem.

“It takes some strength to be able to relate to them in a new way without feeling sad, but you have to give them what they need at that stage of their disease. I think she did have Alzheimer’s because it tends to hit the language center, and she ended up having a harder time thinking of words. At the end, she couldn’t talk at all.”

Talbot recalled becoming concerned about his wife’s wandering. “She used to get up in the middle of the night and play certain notes on the piano,” he said, “the same notes. I tried to get her to play something else: She never would.”

Fee said her mother realized her condition after she strayed away on a family trip when she got lost outside wandering around in the snow. “She said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a problem. It’s the disease,’ ” Fee said.

Fee said dealing with her mom’s affliction was an especially difficult transition at first, probably because of the role reversal involved and her concern about not saying and doing the right things with her. “In the beginning Mom was acting different and it was very stressful,” she said. “The mother-child relationship was still in existence. In the end it was easy for me to help her.

“But not in the beginning. It was like walking on eggshells, because it was like, ‘Mom, you told me that already. Mom, why don’t you write this down?’ I thought she might just possibly get mad.”

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But eventually, Fee was able to achieve a kind of equilibrium in dealing with her mother and her medical condition. “My advice is to normalize their life as much as possible,” she said. “Talk to them as if they know what’s going on. Give them activities that they can experience as much as possible. Make them mobile.”

“Put them in a place if you can afford it,” counseled Talbot. “Incontinence is very hard on families.”

When it was time to shift Angela from home to institutional care, the Talbots did everything possible to make the change easier for her. “She just went kind of willingly, probably because she knew Dad was stressed out,” said Fee. “We brought her things to her room and had it set up so that it looked familiar, instead of bringing her in with a bunch of strange things.”

“They were happy times for her,” agreed Talbot.

Talbot said, if he had to relive the experience again, he would have tried to be better prepared for it. “Get long-term care insurance,” he counseled. “The kind of memory problems she had, it just got to be more than we could handle.”

Angela Schimmenti Talbot will be missed by her innumerable friends and family members. A memorial service was held for her July 6 at the Congregational Church of La Jolla.