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Changed But Not Gone: A Review of Mama Is Still Here!

"I cannot perform my role as wife, mother, sister, aunt or friend in the ways I did before. Yet I am still here. I am still all those things." – Daisy

Like so many other tragic circumstances in life, seeing a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's feels deeply personal, but involves struggles that are universal. In Mama Is Still Here!, Norris Lee Roberts Jr. writes about his mother's experience with the disease now plaguing five million people in the United States captures both sides of the struggle.

Throughout the book, we gain a clear picture of who Daisy (the Mama in question) is. A great cook with a special skill for making coconut cake, the "family's memory maker," a doting mother and a loving wife; the woman at the center of the story shines through even as she sometimes fails to recognize those parts of herself.

With this book, Roberts both celebrates all the things that make his mother special, while at the same painting a clear picture of the challenges most Alzheimer's patients and their families face. For anyone who doesn't know what to expect from an Alzheimer's diagnosis, the book covers many of the basics:

  • The early days of denial, misdiagnosis and trying to cover the symptoms of the disease up.
  • The shock, disbelief, and "why me" sense of despair when the Alzheimer's diagnosis finally comes.
  • All the little things that the Alzheimer's patient can no longer do and needs help with – from cooking and running errands in the early days to getting dressed and bathing herself in the later days.
  • The techniques caregivers must figure out to work around the problems Alzheimer's causes. Roberts recounts scenes of distracting his mother from her despair by telling old family stories, and easing transitions from one place to another by making them as quick as possible.
  • The abandonment of many friends and family members who find visiting too uncomfortable. "Fear drove people away," explains Daisy.
  • The violence and anger some patients exhibit, in spite of always having been gentle and non-violent in their lives before Alzheimer's.
  • The rare moments of lucidity that allow an Alzheimer's patient who has seemed long gone for months to suddenly be fully present for a family celebration or significant moment with a loved one.
  • The constant struggles and re-arrangements of every day life that caregivers must make to accommodate the illness and help their loved one get through it with as little suffering as possible.

Roberts recounts all these experiences as they played out in his family and describes the emotional toll they often took. But he also takes care to emphasize the moments when his mother was more present as her usual self, and how much more valuable to him, his father, and the rest of the family those times were because of the challenges they'd faced. He starts off each chapter with an inspiring quote, and ends it with a relevant scripture and prayer in the hopes of giving the reader something they can use to get through the hardest times.

While there are moments when the book would have benefitted from an editor, the level of the writing isn't really the point. The familiar experiences for Alzheimer's patients and the emotions they provoke in the people they love come through clearly. For anyone reeling from a recent diagnosis of their own, wondering what to expect in the days to come for a loved one in the early stages, or just looking to hear that someone else has dealt with what they're going through – this book can provide catharsis, guidance, and the feeling that you're not alone.

Review by Kristen Hicks