Alzheimer’s Changes the Picture for One North Carolina Family

Artistic, articulate and adventuresome – these are the words that Karen Strickland of Asheville, believes best describe her mother Carol McKnight. Prior to moving to Asheville, Karen and her brother Michael were born and raised in southern California.   “Due to difficult circumstances with my father, mom rescued my brother and me,” shared Karen. “She’s my hero and raised the two of us on her own. Mom worked multiple jobs while being there for the most important job in the world which was being a mom.” According to Karen, Carol was a loving and playful mother.  Despite hardships and working more than one job, she found time to play with her children, talk with them and help with their homework.

About 25 years ago, Carol and Karen made the move to western North Carolina where Carol retired.  Carol had a big passion for photography.  She loved nature and hiking. “Mom couldn’t wait to see what was around the corner so she could take a picture of it,” offered Karen. While she was considered an amateur photographer, Carol had done camera work years ago for an advertising agency in California (her second job). Additionally, she had ‘an eye’ for capturing amazing photos.  One of Carol’s fall photographs was entered into the Haywood County Fair about 20 years ago along with a Walmart contest in which she won top honors at both. People often told her that she should sell her photographs or have them turned into note cards.

“Mom was my best friend and we always got along well,” said Karen. “About seven to ten years ago, I noticed that we just weren’t getting along.  I began to wonder if it was something that I had done to irritate her, but what I eventually realized is that mom did not understand our conversations.  According to Karen, her mother also began forgetting how to take pictures.  “Mom would ask, ‘What button do I push to take the picture?  Now how do I focus the camera?’ So I would show her and then she would be ok for the rest of the day.”   But then it became worse – so much so that every time Carol wanted to take a picture, she couldn’t remember how to turn the camera on.  Karen also noted that her mom had always been meticulous with her checkbook.  She always balanced it, and it typically took her a couple of minutes to double check it compared to the bank statement. The bank statement then became beyond a chore- it was excruciating for her. “Mom was fiercely independent, and the first few times I offered to help her with it, she was very defensive.” 

Karen admits that she was procrastinated in taking her mom to the doctor.  “I just kept thinking I was being too hard on her and she was diagnosed about a year and a half ago with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. That’s when mom was in the thick of things with sundowning, hallucinations and mood swings.”   Karen and her mom lived together at that time, and Karen really wanted to retire from the Buncombe County School System but she could not afford to.  “I really wished mom could have stayed home, but I could not leave her alone.” Luckily Karen was able to move her mother to Harmony at Reynolds Mountain assisted living facility.  “They are just family and took really good care of her,” added Karen. “Within two weeks of moving to Harmony, they relocated mom to the memory care unit due to her wandering and falling.  Her legs were among the first to go physically. Karen adds that she was initially concerned that she may experience some push back from her mom in moving to a community; however, Carol’s hallucinations increased.  She imagined other people – including her son Michael, who had tragically died 27 years ago in an automobile accident, being in the house with her which brought her comfort – but luckily the transition to the assisted living community went more smoothly than anticipated.

Karen shares that she really wasn’t that familiar with the Alzheimer’s Association during most of her mom’s journey in living with Alzheimer’s. “I did some research online after I would put mom to bed at night [when she still lived with Karen] to try and find out what was going on with her.”  I kept thinking to myself, ‘her behavior can’t be normal’. I did look at the Association website.  In reviewing the ten symptoms, I thought, ‘that is her!’”  Karen offers that she wasn’t fully aware of all the services the Association provided in initially finding a home for her mom.  She therefore contacted A Place for Mom which was helpful in determining the area long-term care communities that might be a good fit based on information Karen shared with them about Carol.   Karen became more involved with the Alzheimer’s Association through forming a team (Team McKnight) of friends and family for Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Asheville last year to honor her mom. They enjoyed spending the day walking around the scenic Lake Junaluska (due to the pandemic teams walking in their own neighborhoods instead of a large group gathering). “This is a horrific disease.  I began to realize that this disease is way bigger than me and bigger than her.  It has to be about something bigger than the two of us.”

At the end of November 2020, Karen retired after a 36 year career as a school teacher and reading specialist. “I thought, once an educator, always an educator – I’m going to find out more about becoming a volunteer Alzheimer’s Community Educator. There are so many people who do not understand dementia or Alzheimer’s.”  A couple of Karen’s co-workers – who had all had good intentions – came to visit her mom when she was in the hospital after one of her many falls.  Karen shared that they walked in and said ‘hello’ and asked what had she been doing that day? “Poor momma – she was reliving her past – she thought I was her momma – her momma was a teacher too – so that was a good connection for her – she thought she’d been in school studying math.  The co-workers laughed at her which just broke my heart.  I thought ‘you know, we have got to get people educated – how do you communicate with folks [living with the disease].  It is not a normal part of aging.’” 

Karen believes the Association’s mission of education and raising funds for research is of equal importance.  “I’m glad to play an active role as an educator, but research is so needed.  “Ongoing research is needed to find out more about the miraculous brain.,  says Karen who admires the individuals who volunteer for clinical trials as she believes they are instrumental in the process to find a cure.   

Team McKnight is looking forward to this year’s Asheville Walk on October 9.  Karen’s friends within the community, who were with her in the midst of her mom’s journey, witnessed firsthand the change that Alzheimer’s had on Carol.  “We all want to honor my mom, and they want to support me, too.”  Karen says that the Facebook fundraising has been really beneficial to their team.  Additionally, Karen has gotten actively involved with successfully recruiting more corporate sponsors and Walk teams for this year’s event as a Walk Committee member. “I’m really excited that my Pastor Tim Lolley, who is also the voice of Asheville Tourist, will be the emcee at Pack Square Park on Walk Day.” Karen firmly believes that Walk to End Alzheimer’s is an effective way to communicate the significance of disease – not only its impact on the individual living with it – but everyone who is connected to that individual. 

Sadly, Carol succumbed to the disease in December 2020. “My mom always said, ‘If you don’t have laughter, what else do you have?’ That’s the biggest lesson I learned from her.  She never lost her love of laughter.  She taught me to find joy even during life’s darkest storms.  Never lose hope.” 

LIKE KAREN, WE ALL HAVE A REASON TO FIGHT FOR A WORLD WITHOUT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. Join your local Walk to End Alzheimer’s today.

The Alzheimer’s Association hosts 17 walks across North Carolina. The Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Since 1989, the Alzheimer’s Association® mobilized millions of Americans in the Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk®; now the Alzheimer’s Association is continuing to lead the way with Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Together, we can end Alzheimer’s.

We’re moving forward with plans to host the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s® in person this fall. We are planning every Walk with the health and safety of our constituents, staff and volunteers as our top priorities. All events will implement safety protocols including physical distancing, masks (where required), contactless registration, hand sanitizing stations and more. We will continue to closely monitor Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local guidelines to ensure Walk events adhere to recommendations and are safe for attendees, as well as offer options to participate online and in your neighborhood.

2021 NORTH CAROLINA WALK DATES

Alamance County – 9.25.21
Asheville – 10.9.21
Charlotte – 10.23.21
Fayetteville – 10.30.21
Gaston/Cleveland/Lincoln – 10.9.21
Guilford County – 10.16.21
Henderson County – 9.25.21
Hickory – 10.31.21
Iredell County – 9.25.21
Jacksonville – 10.16.21
Moore County – 9.25.21
Mount Airy – 9.18.21
New Bern – 10.23.21
Rowan-Cabarrus – 10.30.21
Triangle – 10.9.21
Wilmington – 11.6.21
Winston-Salem – 11.6.21

Where there’s a Walk, there’s a way.

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