I was raised by parents who understood the power of words. They spoke to me in ways that were loving, inspiring and encouraging. My parents were also great storytellers and that’s partly why I fell in love with communication. My career started in radio and it took me all the way to primetime television. In 2014, I was hired at "Access Hollywood." I had been working there for about a month when my mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, at the age of 65.
“Something Is Wrong With Mom”
It started with phone calls from my father: “Something is going on with your mom.” She would misplace her car keys daily; he would find them in the refrigerator, or hidden in one of the cooking pans. She became very suspicious of the people around her. At one point, she began accusing my father or visiting friends of stealing her jewelry.
Having no knowledge of the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
, we attributed my mom’s abnormal actions to stress. One day, a phone call changed everything. She called and said: “Elizabeth, do you know how I get to Olivia’s house?” Olivia is my sister and she lived down the street from us for over 15 years. That’s when I knew something was horribly wrong. My heart sank to my stomach. I immediately called my sister to have a family meeting.
Planning Ahead, Together
The first time you have the conversation about Alzheimer’s can seem daunting — you will have so many questions and topics to cover — but it’s also one of the most empowering steps you can take for you and your family. We felt blindsided by the disease, but we knew we had to take action once we understood the road we were embarking on.
It was a huge relief to be able to come together as family to support my mom and to figure out what was happening. My mother never wanted to burden anyone, so she was clever at hiding her symptoms. Once we had a proper diagnosis, we were able to confront this disease with our new knowledge in order to put a plan in place.
Looking back, I realize that Alzheimer’s was in no way on our radar — we didn’t think the disease impacted Latino families. Now we know that Alzheimer’s does not discriminate: it can affect anyone with a brain. In fact, Hispanics are about one and one-half times as likely to have Alzheimer's or other dementias as older whites. Anything holding you back — tackling personal topics, discussing finances — needs to be put aside. The time to take action is always now, as soon as you are able. The earlier you get a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the better. Once you have a diagnosis, you can make plans for the future and talk openly as a family.
Mother-Daughter Love Notes
My mom only had about 5% of her language abilities near the end of her life, but her words live on. She would stick Post-It notes in places I would find them or take a Sharpie to a moving box and write a sweet message for me to read later.
It’s because of her that I appreciate and celebrate the gift of sharing love through language. Today, my mom’s handwritten words are preserved in photo frames, so I can revisit them, and her, every time I walk through my house.
Alzheimer’s disease may have taken my mother’s voice, but it didn’t take her appreciation of words. It’s important for me to share my mom’s story in hopes that other families affected by Alzheimer’s will share their stories too. We need to move away from any stigmas around this disease. Together, we can use the power of our words to express our hopes and fears — and dreams for a future world without Alzheimer’s.
Liz's mom passed away in November of 2019.
About the author: Liz Hernandez is an award-winning television correspondent and Alzheimer’s Association Celebrity Champion. As a reporter for Access Hollywood, E! News and MTV, journalist Hernandez’s career has been built on words. Through WORDAFUL, a video and live event series that focuses on the importance of how we communicate, Hernandez has created a new form of storytelling to connect people to and through the power of words. This project has tackled words like “love,” and “mother”, and in each episode, Hernandez or a guest speaker defines the meaning of a word through their own unique lens. WORDAFUL is derived from the phrase, ‘Words are powerful.’ “Our thoughts and words from yesterday are what make up our lives today,” Hernandez says. Learn more about WORDAFUL.
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