Memoir shows how mother and daughter dealt with Alzheimer’s
Tinky Weisblat of Hawley has written a book about taking care of her mother who had Alzheimer's disease for several years.
Tinky Weisblat said her mother also drew emotional support from her dog, Truffle, and cat, Lorlei Lee.
Tinky Weisblat talks about the role humor played while taking care of her mother who suffered from dementia at her home in Hawley.
Tinky Weisblat at her home in Hawley.
Tinky Weisblat at her home in Hawley.
Tinky Weisblat at her home in Hawley.
Tinky Weisblat had long admired her mother, Janice, for many things: her intelligence and quick wit; her upbeat attitude; her love of music and poetry and her skill as a writer; her ability to disagree in a non-disagreeable way.
And when Janice, nicknamed Taffy, developed Alzheimer’s disease and began losing her memory — and parts of her personality — Weisblat became her caregiver, continuing to find ways to appreciate her mother until the older woman’s death in 2011.
The experience might have made for a sad story. But Weisblat, a freelance writer who lives in Hawley, focused instead on the moments of grace, love, acceptance and even humor in her memoir, “Pulling Taffy: A Year with Dementia and Other Adventures.”
Janice’s longstanding nickname resonated as a title for the book because, Tinky Weisblat writes, “the concept of a taffy pull, in which people have to work together — are in a sense stuck together — was appropriate. For several years I was yoked to my mother. Taking care of her was work, albeit sometimes sweet work.”
Though originally from New Jersey, the Weisblats developed deep roots in western Massachusetts. Taffy Weisblat graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley in 1939, and her experience at the school had a profound impact on her life, her daughter writes; Taffy studied French and spent her junior year in France, developing a lifelong love of all things Français, and she made friends at the college that lasted her whole life.
Taffy Weisblat also co-owned a popular antiques store, The Merry Lion, for many years in Shelburne Falls; the store’s name was a play on the name of Mount Holyoke founder Mary Lyon.
Tinky Weisblat, who’s also a Mount Holyoke graduate, says she grew up partly overseas but spent a good chunk of her childhood and teenage years in Hawley; her mother and father began renting a summer home in the town in the late 1950s and eventually built their own house there, where Weisblat has lived since the early 1990s, and where she largely took care of her mother during the last years of her life.
“This was always home to me,” she said during an interview in the house, which sits on a quiet road carved through thick forest. “And it became a second home to my mom, even though she still had ties to New Jersey ... it was difficult at times (to take care of her), but I’m grateful she was able to stay here with me, and I’m grateful for all the help I got from this community.”
“Pulling Taffy,” which Weisblat self-published — it’s available online and at her website, www.merrylion.com — covers the last year of Taffy Weisblat’s life. Tinky Weisblat explains that she had begun to keep a journal in January 2011 about her life with her mother, who by that time was 92 and had been struggling with dementia for several years. After her mother died in December 2011, Weisblat went back to her journal entries and wove in family history and essays to produce her book. She also included recipes of meals she and her mother would make.
Her goal, she says, was to craft a different kind of book about Alzheimer’s, a subject of growing national concern, given that people are living longer and thus becoming more susceptible to developing the condition. She thought the story’s day-to-day narrative would make it accessible to most readers, and she also wanted to focus on the more positive things she experienced and offer hope to other caregivers.
“There were many times I was upset — there’s no question it was a draining experience,” Weisblat said. “I’m not trying to downplay the difficulties of dementia. But inside, I firmly believe my mother was still the same person, that Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken her all away, and I learned a lot of useful lessons” from taking care of her.
One of the most important lessons, Weisblat adds, is that there are few if any situations in life that don’t benefit from a little humor. “Pulling Taffy” has its share of comical moments, from a cat peeing in Weisblat’s lap to her mother disappearing in an elevator, and Weisblat says she and her mother always looked for opportunities to laugh together.
“It invariably made our burdens lighter,” she writes. “It was occasionally hard to find, but the search for the lighter side of our experiences always proved worthwhile.”
After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Tinky Weisblat earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee and a doctorate in American studies from the University of Texas. She’s previously worked as a teacher, and as a journalist she’s specialized in food and media issues, writing for various publications including the Boston Globe.
Working as a freelancer gave her the flexibility to care at home for her mother, she notes, but it also made meeting deadlines difficult and stressful at times. She had actually first become a caregiver about five years earlier, after it became clear that her mother, still living part of the time on her own in New Jersey, was not well.
“The first inkling I had was when my sister-in-law said that she seemed lonely, or needy in some way,” said Weisblat. Given that her mother, a former teacher, had always been such a cheerful, optimistic person, that seemed odd. On top of that, her mother suffered a small stroke that seemed to damage her memory.
In “Pulling Taffy,” Taffy Weisblat no longer recognizes Tinky as her daughter, though she does know her as a familiar face.
Taffy is often preoccupied with the idea of going “home,” and increasingly the idea of home seems to be tied up with her childhood. As Weisblat relates, Taffy became convinced she was a young girl and saw her daughter as an important adult in her life.
“I just wanted to say I’m glad I’m your niece,” she said to her daughter one night. “I can watch you and learn how to do things from you.”
Weisblat writes that she gave her mother a hug and said, “We can learn from each other.”
Music served as a strong bond for the two, cutting through her mother’s confusion and periodic bouts of illness, restlessness and depression. Taffy had previously played the piano, and Tinky Weisblat sometimes performs publicly as a “chanteuse,” as she puts it, singing old show tunes; the two would sing together at home, and if her mother didn’t recognize a song, she would still be moved by the music, Weisblat says.
Weisblat got help along the way. Mother and daughter rented an apartment in the winter and part of the spring of 2011 in northern Virginia, in part to be near Weisblat’s brother, David, and his family. Back in Hawley, Weisblat hired a nursing assistant and other attendants to spend time with her mother — a decision she was able to make, she says, because Taffy had financial resources, such as a pension.
Taffy also drew emotional support from Weisblat’s dog and cat — Truffle and Lorlei Lee, respectively — and until a few months before her death was still able to walk a fair amount with the aid of a walker. She eventually did need a wheelchair and ultimately she received hospice care at home before she died.
Weisblat’s narrative voice through all of this is conversational, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. Her mother at times would hold long talks with imaginary people, which was disconcerting to Weisblat, even if not unexpected. “(My mother) was very much in the world for most of her life,” she writes. “Her disconnection from it may be a natural step, but it’s a sobering one.”
But what emerges most strongly is a loving portrait of her mother — and of her father, who died in 1998, as well as other family members.
“In the end, (my mother) taught me a lot about patience and living in the moment,” Weisblat said. “And for that, I’m truly grateful.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Weisblat will read from her memoir and speak about her experience caring for her mother Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. in the community room at Forbes Library in Northampton.