The Santa Fe New Mexican – June 30, 2007

In The News
Front page News
June 30, 2007
Profile: A separate reality
By: Diana Del Mauro

MaryEsther Jolly’s world is filled with old memories, but dementia clouds her present. If she becomes lost, a new state law will help get the word out quickly.

MaryEsther Jolly lived her married life in Cincinnati. A homemaker with a sense of humor, she raised two sons and two daughters.

Staying fit was important to MaryEsther after the children grew up. In her 70s, she soundly defeated much younger women on the tennis court in a citywide league.

Though her body remained strong, eventually her brain was undermined by Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. MaryEsther became forgetful.

She also began hoarding food — buying 10 chickens then letting them rot in the refrigerator. Soon, grocery shopping became a potentially hazardous affair. She’d drive to the market and forget how to get home.

Her children were divided about what to do. “It was really, really kind of traumatic for the four of us,” her daughter Laura Jolly said.

Laura feared her mother would kill somebody on the road.

About three years ago, MaryEsther moved into an assisted-living apartment on a former plantation in Ohio. It was like a mansion with sweeping acreage, and MaryEsther strayed into the parking lot now and then.

“The wandering gets to be totally unsafe,” Laura said.

So MaryEsther’s next move was to Santa Fe, where Laura lives. She is one of 24 residents at Sierra Vista, a double-locked residence dedicated to people with Alzheimer’s disease. Here, a mural camouflages the door that leads to another door that leads to the parking lot.

While Laura said she feels confident her mother won’t escape, she said a new law developed in part by Sierra Vista’s executive director might help others who have a relative with memory loss. The Endangered Person Advisory is a means of quickly spreading the word statewide when a vulnerable person disappears.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Laura said.

Helen’s Law is named after Helen Valdez, an 80-year-old woman from El Guache who went missing in December 2004 and was found murdered four months later. It is effective today.

The measure broadens the Missing Persons Information Act, which had focused on children, to include any missing person who is in imminent danger of causing harm or being harmed, including those with Alzheimer’s disease.

When a local law-enforcement agency receives a report of a missing person that fits that category, the agency is supposed to notify the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s Missing Persons Information Clearinghouse within an hour. The Department of Public Safety will issue details about the missing person on radio stations, television and other news sources; it also can activate the statewide Emergency Alert System.

Velma Arellano, director of Sierra Vista Retirement Community, suggested the law might make the biggest difference in rural areas, where, she said, people with memory loss are more prone to die of dehydration or hypothermia if they disappear from home.

“It’s absolutely left up to the families right now and the neighbors,” Arellano said.

A separate, stronger protocol called an “Amber alert” exists for abducted children who are at risk for being killed within a few hours, according to Peter Olson, a spokesman for the state Public Safety Department.

About 70 percent of Alzheimer’s patients in New Mexico are cared for at home, rather than in a facility. Those who get lost often cannot remember their address or their name.

Some people with Alzheimer’s disease wear identification bracelets, but others don’t. Electronic tracking devices are even more effective, but only eight sheriff’s departments in New Mexico have purchased the expensive Project Lifesaver equipment to track the location of Alzheimer’s patients wearing an electronic bracelet, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Kathy Barela, who attends a support group at Sierra Vista, knows the anguish of searching for a relative with dementia. Once, her mother vanished at the dog park. Three hours later, when Barela was about to give up, she found her mother in her longtime Casa Solana residence.

Her mother had found her way home, “but it scared me to death,” Barela said.

Another time, her mother slipped out of Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi to use the bathroom; she then disappeared. Family members split up in teams to look for her, but it was almost two hours before an aunt spied her on San Francisco Street, headed for home.

“She’s still in denial; she thinks nothing is wrong with her,” Barela said of her 73-year-old mother. “We have to keep a close eye on her and make sure she has groceries and the bills are paid.”

Because dementia is a “closeted disease,” Arellano invited a group of lawmakers to dine with residents of Sierra Vista during the legislative session. The law’s sponsor, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, was one of them.

“They appear very healthy. It’s just the brain that doesn’t work,” Arellano said. “The brain has stopped recording all the new information that they’re learning.”

Old memories can be powerful, while new memories disappear in a flash.

“Whatever their reality is, we validate their feelings,” Arellano said. “Wherever they are in their mind is where they are.”

MaryEsther, who turns 85 this week, thinks she works as a secretary at an Episcopal church in Kentucky. But she’s caught up in the period of her life between ages 18 and 28, when she became good friends with the minister, before she married and moved to Ohio.

Day-to-day memories, meanwhile, rarely linger. Sometimes MaryEsther insists she has bathed when she hasn’t.

“She doesn’t remember who she is, but she remembers what she stood for,” her daughter said. “So much of the person is still there. The story of who she is is receding, but that which remains just seems to grow more precious.”

Contact Diana Del Mauro

By the numbers

35,000: New Mexicans with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
70: Percent of state’s Alzheimer’s population cared for at home.
30: Percent of state’s Alzheimer’s population cared for at a facility.
60: Percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease who will at some time wander and become lost.
Source: Alzheimer’s Association

Copyright 2007 The New Mexican, Inc.