memory loss – abuela

Alzheimer’s disease runs in Ramonita Breban’s family – three of her siblings have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or    dementia: two of her sisters, one of whom is in a nursing home, and a brother, who lives with his wife, grown daughter and her husband in Puerto Rico.

Janette Licastrino, Ramonita’s only daughter, doesn’t think about the chances she might develop the disease. She is too busy caring for her mother, who shares her apartment in Carmel.

Ramonita, 78, was a working single mother who emigrated from Puerto Rico and settled in Yonkers, raising her two children to be conscientious and hard-working. Even after Janette and her brother were grown and gone, Ramonita never wanted to leave Yonkers, where her sisters and all her history remain.

Single and working full-time for a private luxury plane service at the Westchester County airport, Janette, 54, feels she has the time and inclination to shoulder the lion’s share of her mother’s care. Her brother José Breban stays in close touch. In 2011, after Ramonita retired from her job at a nursing home, Janette began to notice that her mother’s grip on life seemed to loosen. On a hot summer day, she’d be wearing winter clothing, or she’d ask the same question over and over. “I started getting sick after eating food she prepared—like maybe she’d added soap by mistake,” Janette recalls.

Although her mother never married, she lived with a partner for 20 years. When Janette offered to hire an aide for a few hours a day, Ramonita was willing but her partner refused. That is, until the night he called at one in the morning, reporting he’d found her mother in the kitchen with a knife in her hand. After that, Janette took charge: hiring an aide, assuming power of attorney and becoming her mother’s health proxy.

The arrangement worked for a while, but eventually took its toll. “I was driving to work, then to see Mommy in Yonkers, and then back up to Carmel every night,” she says. Janette had her mother move in with her, a decision she has not regretted, as Ramonita’s hallucinations began to worsen. “She was seeing people coming out of the fireplace,” says Janette. “It still takes her an hour every night to check all the windows and doors because she thinks people are watching her.”

Two years ago, Janette began volunteering at the Alzheimer’s Association Hudson Valley Chapter, raising tens of thousands of dollars for research. Now, as co-chair of the Westchester Chapter, she often talks to others who are in the shoes she walked in a dozen years ago. “My advice is to surround [their loved one] with love, family and simple activities.” Today, she plays simple card games with her mother, and uses an iPad to play word search games. Every night, they sit down to dinner with a friend or relative tuned in on FaceTime. “She won’t know their name, but she knows the face, and I’ll remind her who it is and what they mean to her.”

Their shared domesticity in the confines of the apartment soothes Ramonita, who has become too fearful of strangers to permit outings – with one exception: “My niece’s five-year-old twins play soccer and sometimes I’ll take my mother to their games,” Janette says. “She’ll sit on the sidelines with her chair and umbrella, and the twins will bring her ice cream. They know that Abuela doesn’t understand the game, but they like having her there.”

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