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SPECIAL REPORT: Alzheimer's Disease, a son's personal story

TYLER, Texas (KETK) - Mildred Barton lived her life fearlessly and to the fullest.

"My mother was a choir teacher for many many years down in Beaumont," her son and KETK anchor, Neal Barton explained. "That's how she and my dad met. He was a school teacher. They asked her to go into the student counseling business. She loved education. She loved kids. She enjoyed laughing. She was very outgoing."
 
She loved God, her husband, her only son and her independence. 

"My dad died back in 2010, and part of his death bed wish was for my mom to move to the Tyler area and for me take care of her," Neal explained.

In that moment, he and his mother both agreed to his father's wish.

"And my dad was dead for 10 minutes, and I knew she wasn't going to do it," Neal said. 

He explained, by no means was he planning to challenge his mother anytime soon. 

Neal chuckled, "I'm a lot like my mother. My dad used to call me "Little Mildred" because she was extremely stubborn. So, I knew it had to be her decision."

Mildred continued to live life in her Lumberton home, about a three and a half hour drive southeast of Tyler, but two years ago, Neal said he began to notice a change.

"She started telling stories that didn't add up. My mother was always so truthful, so, whatever she said you could take to the bank," he explained.

Neal would call her every night to check in, but one night, she didn't answer.

He had the neighbor go to her house. She had fallen in the bathtub. 

Neal believed, his mother must have felt embarrassed. "She said, 'Well, the curtain rods fell on top of me.' Well, we all know curtain rods weigh less than a pound. That story didn't add up."

Neal said he knew it started getting serious last December.

He and his wife always spent Christmas in Lumberton and every year, they brought their dog Bernie. 

One night, Neal and his mother were making Christmas plans over the phone.

"And I'm like, can we bring down Bernie? And in this real terse voice she said, 'Don't do this. Don't do this. Don't do this!' I'm like, 'do what?' 'That dog's dead! You know that dog's dead. Don't do this to me!' And I'm like mom, you can hear him in the background, he's barking! And then she would hang up," Neal explained.

It was a frustrating habit Mildred started to develop. Every time Neal would correct her, his mother would hang up the phone.

At the start of the year, Mildred went in for a yearly checkup. 

"He told her, you're showing signs, but you still have plenty of good life left. You need to move up north with your son, and have some great years. And of course, at the doctor's office, she said 'Absolutely!' and 15 minutes later, 'no'," Neal said. 

In May, Mildred fell again. 

"This last spring.... was not a good time," said Neal, as he held back tears.

By the time they found Mildred, she had been lying on the floor for 37 hours.

Terrified, but alive, she was rushed to the hospital. While in recovery, Mildred had made a decision.

"She said I think it's time I come up to Tyler and live near you. I was stunned," Neal said.

They packed up some of her belongings and moved her to a rehab center in Tyler, but by that point, Neal said his mother was already traumatized by the fall.  

"The biggest problem we had is she fell, and she thought she couldn't walk anymore. Before she fell, my mother could almost trot!" Neal explained.

Refusing to stand, Mildred's recovery seemed to be going in the opposite direction.

Even though Neal visited his mother several times a day, the staff would still call him constantly. 

They would say, "'We're trying to get your mom to get up. She won't.' And I would have to talk to her like a teacher. The way she talked to me. 'Mom!' All of the sudden I was the parent. I'd have to go over there and discipline her," Neal said.

Even the things she loved most, seemed to be slipping away. 

"They wheeled her up to a piano, and my mother was like a concert pianist, and she couldn't find middle "C,"" said Neal.

Mildred also continued her refusal to walk.

Neal said, "I just couldn't believe that was the woman who was so strong, so tough, my mother, just lying there. You know, giving up. 

It was that moment Neal realized, all he could do was be there for her. 

"When you have someone who's suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's, you just need to let them have their own reality. You're not going to change them. I mean, all you're going to do is fight. You're going to make it worse," Neal explained.

Then, Neal says the strangest thing happened, as if Mildred knew her time in this world was drawing to a close.

Neal explained, "She turned and she looked at me and she told me 'I love you!' And she had that rye look, the way she always used to look, that look like Mildred, she looked like she was 45 years old. Then she started talking about, 'It's time for me to go home and be with your dad.'"

Neal knew, like the millions of other adult children who have witnessed this disease slowly consume their parent's livelihood, his mother was slipping away. 

Holding back tears, Neal explained, "I mean, you're losing them! You're physically losing them! You're emotionally losing them. That's the hardest. That's the damnedest part about it. It's that."

On Friday evening, Mildred said "I love you" one more time, and that was the last time Neal saw his mother alive. 

Reflecting back, Neal doesn't think there's anything he could have done to prepare for something like this.

"Where did this come from? I mean, where did this come from? There's so much we don't know about it," Neal said.

With every disease, Neal hopes for a cure.

"Are we eating something wrong? Are we drinking something wrong? Are we not exercising right? What can be done?" Neal asked.

To anyone who hasn't felt the heartache of this disease, Neal describes, it's like you're on shore, and your loved one is in a raft drifting away. 

He said, "You reach out, but you can't get them. Or you can tell them, hey, love you, work with me here or whatever, And it just bounces off. And everyday, they drift out farther and father and father until they're gone. Either here or physically. and that's the hardest part."

If anyone would like to share their story, or speak to Neal directly, he said he would be happy to help however he can, even if it's just to listen. Feel free to call him at the KETK station, 903-581-5656, or email him directly, NBarton@easttexasmatters.com

This is part of a  special week-long series, taking an in-depth look at the causes, treatment and impact of Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia, especially on East Texas families.


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