In 2008, when doctors told Mary Paradis that her mother had dementia, she had a hard time believing it. It was true that Carmela Lastarza had trouble remembering what to do next as she prepared Christmas dinner the previous year. And it was true that she was frequently tired, had difficulty walking and had become more introverted.
But Paradis was never convinced. “My brothers and I suspected something was desperately wrong,” says Paradis, 55, of Clifton Park. “We were perplexed by her intelligence and her memory of people and past events. How does she know who we are if she has dementia?”
By 2010, Lastarza had become unsteady on her feet and would trip while taking baby steps. Her voice was barely above a whisper. Her hands trembled. She turned her head as if she were a puppet on a string. That December, Lastarza fell in a parking lot. The fall marked the beginning of her rapid decline.
When the family finally did have to face the fact that something was wrong, they were grateful to have access to the staff and resources at Albany Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Center to help them through a difficult diagnosis.
Her family took her to see Albany Med neurologist Dr. Earl Zimmerman, who specializes in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. He diagnosed Lastarza with corticobasal ganglionic neurodegeneration, a disease characterized by the loss of nerve cells and shrinkage of the brain that typically strikes adults under the age of 70. Unfortunately, there is no cure.
“The most beautiful thing Dr. Zimmerman did for us was his continued communication,” Paradis says.
In addition to managing and relieving Lastarza’s symptoms, Dr. Zimmerman suggested a family meeting with a social worker at the Alzheimer’s Resource Center at the Alzheimer’s Center of Albany Med. “His suggestion for a family meeting was also pivotal because we were a family in crisis,” Paradis says. “The social worker told us that my mother had a terminal disease and what we could expect in coming months. That was traumatic, but it brought us all onto the same page.”
Paradis quit her job to help her father care for her mother, who died August 15, 2011, just eight months after her diagnosis. As a tribute to her mother, Paradis wrote an eBook called The Asphalt Tap Dancer, a reference to the tiny dance-like steps her mother would take on the driveway.
The family never knew how Lastarza experienced her illness. “We’d ask her, ‘Mommy, how do you feel today?’, and she’d usually say, ‘Good, God bless me,’” Paradis recalls. “She never complained. She just trusted in the Lord.”