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Family shares struggle with mother's memory-stealing disease

Posted November 17, 2010 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2010 7:08 p.m. EST

— In Lois Shoolbred’s mind, it’s 1971 and she lives and works in Washington, D.C. The 80-year-old Cary resident, affectionately known as “Lo Lo” to her family, is caught in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I can't remember all the things I did,” she says, during a fleeting moment of clarity.

Shoolbred’s son, Dave Simpson, invited WRAL News to capture a rare glimpse inside his family’s struggle with the memory-snatching disease, which started affecting his mother six years ago. He is also chronicling his mother's Alzheimer's in a WRAL.com blog,

“Alzheimer's and dementia just basically rob people of all their dignity,” Simpson said. “(We try to) enjoy the good times, because as things progress – as things regress – the fewer good times there can be.”

More than 50 years ago, then-Lois Simpson worked as an on-air personality for WUSN-TV in Charleston, S.C. Balancing career and family, she went on to become a multimedia company producer in Washington, D.C., planning shows for the likes of rocker Robert Plant, country star Willie Nelson and crooner Tony Bennett.

At times, her long-term memories emerge with remarkable clarity.

“(I used to say), ‘Good evening. It's Friday night at the movies, brought to you by Morris Sokol Discount Furniture, right here in downtown Charleston,’” Shoolbred recalled.

Yet, short-term memories fade in seconds. During an interview with WRAL News reporter Cullen Browder, Shoolbred stopped several times to ask who he is and why he was at her home. She lives at Clare Bridge of Cary, an Alzheimer's and dementia care community for seniors.

During the day, Shoolbred charms visitors with her engaging personality as she warmly holds their hands and enthusiastically doles out compliments. But, like many who suffer from Alzheimer’s, her mood can plummet into agitation or depression when the sun goes down.

“Then it gets real ugly, and she says things that are not nice and she uses profanity,” Simpson said. “The only solace I have there is that's not her. That's the awful disease. That's not her.”

At times, Shoolbred wanders away. She once walked into traffic after escaping from a nursing home and said she wanted to die, according to Simpson, who lovingly tends to his mother, no matter the mood swings.

Dementia has also robbed Shoolbred of many connections to her loved ones. When she can't remember something, she often makes up stories and “picks up pieces of conversations and puts them in her conversation,” said her daughter-in-law, Denise Simpson.

“I don't want to see her wither away to that,” Denise Simpson said. “But I'm not going to focus on that, because I enjoy every day.”

In the coming weeks, WRAL News will continue to follow Shoolbred and explore more of her struggles, where to find care and support, warning signs and medical advances.