Protect the Memories: Don’t Sleep on Symptoms is a unique series focused on early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Caregiver gives tips on how to recognize the signs of Alzheimers.

Tracy Cannon-Smith is in Dallas caring for her 80-year-old mother with memory loss. Most of her siblings live hundreds of miles away, though. She has a few tools for keeping them connected through their mother’s care journey. 

It’s been difficult for Tracy Cannon-Smith to witness her mother’s gradual memory loss. Her mom’s an accomplished woman whose trailblazing steps helped shape the history of medicine in the United States. She was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the University of Colorado Medical School. She worked as the head physician for the U.S. State Department, supporting officers overseas. She also raised seven kids. “She’s done a lot of incredible things,” says Cannon-Smith, who is also a physician

About four years ago, Cannon-Smith started noticing that her mother’s thought patterns were shifting. She couldn’t answer simple questions about her daily routines. She would repeat questions. 

“You would try and help her, but she’d get very frustrated because she didn’t want to be seen as if she needed help,” remembers Cannon-Smith. “She wanted to be seen as ‘I can do all these things. I’m still capable.’”

Cannon-Smith’s mother stopped taking her medication and was hesitant to visit the doctor. Even when the doctor would make suggestions about tracking her symptoms, she would not want to listen. Without a clear diagnosis, Cannon-Smith began taking simple steps to help her mother. She would label items in the house, like silverware. She bought her mother a Facebook Portal for emergencies. 

“She couldn’t really use a cell phone anymore,” Cannon-Smith says. One time, her mother was home alone and started wandering the neighborhood. A neighbor brought her back to the house. 

“She remembered that I showed her the Facebook portal and called me,” says Cannon-Smith, who was performing surgery at the time of the call.

Being a caregiver has required Cannon-Smith to make many changes in her life. She’s accommodating her mother’s needs and also trying to engage the support of her siblings. One brother spends a lot of time caring for her mother at the house. The other siblings live in different states. Cannon-Smith and her sisters use the Marco Polo app. “I record my mom,” she says. She asks them for opinions about certain decisions. 

“You can see the emotions on people’s faces – how I’m feeling. It’s a little more interactive than texting and calling everybody.” 

Cannon-Smith keeps up with her brothers over the phone. Two of her sisters have flown into town to alternate caring for her mother for one week. They have regular conversations about how to meet her care needs. 

“There are certain things that my siblings are much better at than I am,” says Cannon-Smith. “My one sister – she is kind of like the cheerleader type and can cheer my mom on and be Ms. Positive.” Obviously, because I’m a physician, I’m the one who’s like, ‘Oh, I gotta make the appointments.”

Everyone has a different way of coping with the gradual memory loss of a loved one. Cannon-Smith says the best way to go through this journey is to understand this principle when staying connected and seeking feedback. She says it’s also important to be present and enjoy as many moments as you can with your loved one — whether you’re in the same city or not. She says do what you can and, of course, make sure that you’re taking care of your physical and mental health in the process. 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr. LaRae Kemp, who passed away on May 15th, 2022 at the age of 80.

Here are some additional resources for caregiving: 

We would love to hear from you and hear your story about how Alzheimer’s disease has impacted you and your family. Fill out the form below to share your story.