YUKON — When talking with 35-year-old Amy Steele Neathery, it's difficult to find any kind of trace of the child she use to be. With her mother, Stephanie Steele, who started showing signs of early onset Alzheimer's at 55, it's a different story.
“She reverts back to when she was a toddler,” Neathery said.
Throughout the week, Neathery visits her mother, now 60, at Gran Gran's place, a nursing home at 1110 South Cornwell.
A few years ago she could engage in normal conversations with her mother but due to the rapid decline of Steele's cognitive abilities, interaction between the two today is limited to Neathery feeding her mother dinner.
“I'll take what I can get,” said Neathery, of Yukon.
Neathery remembers a different kind of person.
Steele, a mother of five and former schoolteacher, was outgoing, funny, proactive and full of life.
“She loved being a mom more than anything,” Neathery said. “Every dance recital, sporting event, awards ceremony, she was there.”
With no family history of Alzheimer's and at the comparatively young age of 55, the disease hit Steele.
Five Christmases ago, the mother's behavior struck the daughter as odd. Steele had always loved Christmas, spending months decorating and buying presents, but that year Neathery was astounded to see no Christmas tree and no presents.
“That wasn't like her,” Neathery said.
Neathery also noticed that while her mother had written checks to pay all the bills for the month of November she didn't put any of them in the mail, another act that was not typical of Steele who Neathery described as being punctual and responsible before her diagnosis. In December she didn't write any checks.
“She called me one Tuesday afternoon which was strange because I knew she should have been in her classroom. She just said ‘Amy I can't teach anymore.”
Neathery stepped in and started paying Steele's bills. She began visiting her mother more frequently and cooking meals when Steele began having trouble grocery shopping.
The family set out to find what was causing Steele's symptoms.
“The only real way to diagnose Alzheimer's is through performing an autopsy,” Neathery said. “A PET scan can be effective but our insurance didn't cover that. So we went through a process of elimination.”
After over a year of visiting doctors and therapists and ruling out depression, insomnia and hormonal imbalance, Steele's neurologist performed a neuropsychological test that confirmed she had early onset Alzheimer's.
“Neither one of us expected it to be Alzheimer's,” Neathery said. “My mom's a fighter so had she been diagnosed with cancer she would have set out to beat it.”
Instead, Neathery said, her mother, equipped with the knowledge of having been diagnosed with an incurable disease, threw up her hands and said “it is what it is.”
“I loved that reaction. It's my favorite thing that she would say,” Neathery said. “She just took it with stride.”
Neathery has been trying to imitate her mother's attitude ever since.
Two years after Steele's diagnosis, Neathery moved her to Oklahoma, from the mother's home in Dallas.
Neathery's brother, Jeremy Steele, now 33 years old, moved in with his mother to help care for her. They lived in an apartment and she continued to drive.
While thing seemed OK for the first few months, life got harder as Stephanie Steele's symptoms got worse.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's vary with each person affected, Family Education Coordinator at the Alzheimer's Association Oklahoma Chapter, Verla Raines, said.
“Every brain is different. It might start with the person shopping for groceries and then suddenly forgetting where they are or how they got there. People seem to think that people with Alzheimer's only lose their memory but they also lose their ability to use logic and judgment,” Raines said.
“At first they may just need someone to help them remember certain dates. But over time they face risks of leaving the stove on or door unlocked,” she said. “Eventually they need 24 hour care.”