Death in Slow Motion: My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's


Azheimer's is death in slow motion," says Eleanor Cooney in this jarring and unsentimental memoir about caring for her mother, "and it has the ability to kill love while the person you love still breathes."

When it was all but certain that her once-glamorous and witty novelist-mother had Alzheimer's, Cooney moved her from her beloved Connecticut home to California in order to care for her. In tense, searing prose, punctuated with the blackest of humor, Cooney documents the slow ...

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Azheimer's is death in slow motion," says Eleanor Cooney in this jarring and unsentimental memoir about caring for her mother, "and it has the ability to kill love while the person you love still breathes."

When it was all but certain that her once-glamorous and witty novelist-mother had Alzheimer's, Cooney moved her from her beloved Connecticut home to California in order to care for her. In tense, searing prose, punctuated with the blackest of humor, Cooney documents the slow erosion of her mother's mind, of the powerful bond the two shared, and her own descent into drink and despair.

"She was always my favorite person," says Eleanor, "hip, cool, brilliant, funny, sane — my ultimate confidante and sympathizer." Now, overwhelmed by the Chinese water torture of endless small worries, endlessly repeated, that dementia thrusts on victim and caregiver, Cooney resorts to booze, tranquilizers, and gallows wit to blunt the edges of the relentless loss and the demands of ministering to this devastating disease.

But the coping mechanism that finally serves this eloquent writer best is writing, the ability to bring to vivid life the memories her mother is losing. As her mother gropes in the gathering darkness for a grip on the world she once loved, succeeding only in conjuring sad fantasies of places and times with her dead husband, Cooney revisits their true past. Death in Slow Motion becomes the mesmerizing story of Eleanor's actual childhood, straight out of the pages of John Cheever; the daring and vibrant mother she remembers; and a time that no longer exists for either of them.

Deeply moving, shockingly honest, and framed by wounded love, Cooney's tale reveals in remorseless prose the true nature of the beast called Alzheimer's, and with it, the arcane processes of the writer's craft and of a splendid mind's disintegration. "Alzheimer's," Cooney writes, "you'll never be the same once it's paid you a visit."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Whoever said love was stronger than death was full of malarkey," comments Cooney, setting the forthright tone early in this honest account of taking care of a parent with Alzheimer's. In 1997, Cooney (The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'Ang Dynasty) and her companion, Mitch, both freelance writers, moved Cooney's 75-year-old mother, novelist Mary Durant, from her home in Connecticut to live near them in Northern California when it became clear that her mother's short-term memory was failing. A great admirer and loving daughter of her elegant, witty mother, Cooney suffered from terrible grief because she could not protect her mother from encroaching dementia. Durant's metamorphosis into a dependent, childlike hypochondriac occurred some years after the death of her husband. Cooney vividly describes the everyday physical and emotional stresses on her and Mitch, once her mother moved in with them, and highlights the lack of available resources for Alzheimer's patients who are not independently wealthy. Cooney and Mitch missed writing deadlines, began to drink heavily and nearly ended their relationship. When they could no longer manage her mother at home, Cooney placed her in several unpleasant assisted living residences, until Cooney managed to find her a reasonable place. A short story by Mary Durant is appended to this well-written, harrowing memoir. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Soon after the unexpected death of her mother's third husband, novelist Cooney noticed subtle signs that her mother's memory was failing. Mary Durant (also a writer) fell prey to sweepstakes schemes, suffered from depression, and was becoming confused in familiar neighborhoods-common symptoms of Alzheimer's. Over their mother's violent protests, Cooney and her brother moved her from Connecticut to Cooney's California home. As Durant's memory deteriorated, Cooney found the "hip, cool" mother she knew and loved "insidiously replaced by an imposter." Unable to afford in-home assistance, Cooney turned to alcohol and antidepressants for relief. Finally, after 18 months of caregiving, she sought residential placement for her mother. Cooney's memoir is a vivid, honest account of losing a parent to Alzheimer's. It is also the story of her own growing up, a narrative that accentuates the loss of memories both mother and daughter suffered. As Cooney eloquently writes, "You can't remember the predementia person. The memories are stuck behind heavy soundproof plate glass." Although less medically focused than Charles Pierce's Hard To Forget, this is a wonderful addition to caregiving and Alzheimer's collections. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/02.]-Karen McNally Bensing, Benjamin Rose Lib., Cleveland Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Cooney (Shangri-La, 1996, etc.) paints a harrowing portrait of the devastation Alzheimer’s wreaks not just on the victim but on those closest to her.

"Hip, cool, brilliant, funny, sane," Mary Durant was transformed by the blight of Alzheimer’s into a demented creature who nearly destroyed her daughter’s life. When it became clear that Durant’s mind was going, Cooney moved her mother from Connecticut to California to care for her. The initial plan, for Durant to live alone in a nearby apartment, proved impossible. Cooney then converted her garage into a residence for her mother, but this too became unworkable, and the long search began for an adequate, affordable live-in care facility. Durant’s violent behavior caused her to be evicted from one home and judged unacceptable by others. Even with the help of Cooney’s partner Mitch, who had once been a nursing-home inspector, finding the right place was a long and grueling process. As she chronicles Durant’s increasing dementia and its devastating effects on her own life (she turned in anguish to Valium and vodka), Cooney weaves in glimpses of happier days. Durant was a respected writer--the inclusion of an unpublished short story in the appendix is an unexpected bonus--and young Eleanor took great pride in her glamorous mother’s beauty and accomplishments. During her privileged childhood among artists and writers in Connecticut, Alexander Calder’s studio was her playroom, and Arthur Miller was a neighbor. The contrast between this golden past and a present marked by frustration, anger, resentment, and fatigue makes the destructive force of Alzheimer’s a vivid reality. Anyone assuming that Alzheimer’s victims live in a happy,mindless state will discover here that on the contrary they are often agitated, confused, miserable, and angry, and that those who loved the person he or she once was are likely to find themselves pushed to the limits of endurance.

Cooney tells it all with a fine and rare mix of black humor and bleak honesty.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780066213965
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/21/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.24 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Eleanor Cooney has published four novels. She lives in Mendocino, California.

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Table of Contents

1 God Is a Murderer 1
2 The Serpent's Tooth 12
3 The Undead 23
4 The Belly of the Beast 37
5 Heart of Glass 49
6 The Big Bang 62
7 Wicked, Wicked Ways 72
8 Our Town 81
9 Judas Rising 100
10 Thin Ice 115
11 Shiva, the Destroyer 129
12 Hungry Ghosts 141
13 Arsenic 151
14 Old Lace 158
15 Cry Me a River 179
16 Sunset, Children ... 199
Epilogue: The Hotel California 223
Appendix "The Scouts" 239
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First Chapter

Death in Slow Motion
My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's

Chapter one

God Is a Murderer

September: About eleven months since we moved my mother to California to live with us, I wake at dawn from queasy dreams where I'm sliding down steep slimy banks of mucky pools or flying in a crowded flimsy airplane being pulled to earth by heavy gravity or searching for lost kittens in a dank primeval forest. The morning light is gray and hopeless; I hear my mother's feet outside shuffling like the Swamp Thing across the driveway to get her morning paper. Her presence pulls umbilically at my gut. I gulp a Valium and burrow under the blankets, my body stiff with fear and fatigue, head throbbing from too much wine the night before. Though the room is still, I can feel acceleration in my stomach, my bed a rollercoaster car just cresting and starting its plunge, but the acceleration is not of motion, it's of time, warp-speeding me into my own old age and decrepitude. The thoughts that seethe around in my brain are pornographically mortal. They shock even me.

Whoever said love is stronger than death was full of malarkey. There's no contest. Death is a sumo wrestler, and it slams love to the mat every time. When my mother's husband died twelve years ago, her own life was pretty much sucked out of her, though she still walks and talks. I loved Mike, too. Let me give you some advice: Unless you have deep religious faith (I have none at all) or objective detachment bordering on the abnormal, don't read the autopsy report of someone you loved. I peeked at a few pages of Mike's, and regret it. There are no euphemisms there. Bone saws and steel buckets will remind you just how strong death really is.

And death's warm-up act, Alzheimer's, is no less a brute. You'll never be the same once it's paid you a visit -- believe me. Just a short time ago, I was ignorant. I'd heard stories, of course, but like winning the lottery or going to prison or being abducted by aliens, you just can't know how it is until you've lived it. Now I know. Alzheimer's is death in slow motion, and it has the ability to kill love while the person you love still breathes.

My mother was always my favorite person. And a lot of other people's, too. Hip, cool, brilliant, funny, sane. A writer. My ultimate confidante and sympathizer. Not like the other mothers. My friends always came to my house to escape their regular boring (or crazy) parents. I have a picture of me and a bunch of teenaged friends one summer in the mid-sixties cavorting in the backyard of the house in Connecticut, my mother sitting in our midst in a canvas chair, slim elegant blue-jeaned legs crossed, laughing. We're all free and easy, horsing around, performing for her. She's in her early forties, beautiful, probably a year or so away from meeting Mike.

She was born in 1922. The first shadows fell around 1997 with blanks in her short-term retention and disquietingly uncharacteristic lapses in judgment. It's plain to us now that she struggled to hide it for a couple of years. She's graduated to delusions and disorientation and now some long-term memory loss, too.

My mother's been severely, profoundly depressed since Mike's death, and I believe that this was the cause of her mental deterioration. I don't have hard, irrefutable clinical evidence that this is so -- it's just what I know. I believe protracted despair weakened her, changed the physical structure of her brain, made her vulnerable to the disease. Chronic sorrow is a parasite. It eats your strength, appropriates your will, moves like toxic sludge through every system of the mind and body. And my theory is not so farfetched. Everyone knows that depression compromises the immune system. Look at the statistics on cancer survival and mental health. How often do we hear about couples dying within weeks or days of each other? Alzheimer's is still a mystery, but they're slowly finding things out. Recent research points to an autoimmune disorder -- an inflammation of the brain. So there it is. I think grief literally burned out the circuits of my mother's brain.

And it did it in a sly, self-serving way that points to itself as the culprit: It robbed her of her wit, intellect, judgment and competence, but it made sure its own pathways were sturdy and intact. She forgot everything, but she didn't forget her grief. It stayed vital, grew stronger, gathered momentum. If I'm completely wrong, and my mother was going to lose her memory even if Mike hadn't died, her illness would not have taken the form that it did, fueled by heartache and vodka, shaped by desolation. None of this would have happened.

But Mike did die. And it did happen.

In mid-November 1989, late in the afternoon, my mother and brother and I filed into the Intensive Care Unit of a major San Diego hospital. We stood in awe around Mike's bed. He was just coming out of the anesthesia after a major and radical six-hour operation where they'd opened up his chest and put him on a heart-lung machine. This had not been bypass surgery or anything else we've all heard of. This was such a rare, specialized and risky procedure that only two hospitals in the country performed it. I'd never seen an I.C.U. before. It was a temple of mystery with its hushed atmosphere, brilliant lights and stupefyingly sophisticated technology, Mike's bed the altar where human sacrifices were offered to a perverse deity with a jaded appetite.

Mike struggled to focus. He grasped at our hands. My mother kissed him and spoke in his ear. He'd made it. All of us, Mike included, thought that if he died it would be on the table. But he'd come through and opened his eyes. He was out of danger.


Death in Slow Motion
My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's
. Copyright © by Eleanor Cooney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

IntroductionLike so many Americans whose parents have Alzheimer's, Eleanor Cooney approached her mother's disease with a combination of fear and hopeful plans. Recording the transformation of the two women, both of them talented writers, Death in Slow Motion raises compelling questions about the elusive dance between wisdom and memory, and between wit and words. As Eleanor becomes the 24-hour caregiver for her mother, this unique memoir also speaks to the issue nearly everyone must confront at some point: how to honor our aging parents in the face of emotional and physical exhaustion.Geography is Eleanor's first challenge; she and her mother, novelist Mary Durant, had lived thousands of miles apart for years. She decides to move Mary from Connecticut to California, settling her in a cheerful ocean-view apartment just minutes from Eleanor's house. But it is soon apparent that Mary isn't well enough to live on her own at all, and before long she is part of her daughter's household. As months pass, Eleanor begins to realize the maddening limitations of the medical specialists, nursing homes, and insurance companies she had woven into her mother's safety net. Stress and sleep deprivation take their toll, quickly eroding the powerful bond mother and daughter had always shared and endangering Eleanor's relationship with Mitch, her mate of many years. Yet while Mary's mind churns out anxious (and invented) memories, Eleanor revisits her Cheeveresque childhood and finds a new understanding of her roots as a woman of letters.Unflinching and laced with dark humor, Death in Slow Motion charts a new course through the murky path of dementia. For thisauthor, its destination is the ultimate unknown. We hope that the following lines of inquiry will enhance your discussion of her eloquently recounted journey. Topics for Discussion
  • What are your first impressions of Mary Durant as she is described through her daughter's eyes? How does your opinion of Eleanor Cooney shift throughout Death in Slow Motion?
  • The chapter titles capture a variety of tones, from anger to deadpan humor. How would you characterize the overall tone of the book? What aspects of Eleanor's experience were exceptional? What aspects seem universal?
  • The book's Connecticut and West Coast settings sharply contrast with one another. Mary loved Connecticut and her lively neighbors so much that she chose them over her second husband's Hollywood home, but Eleanor and her brother associate Connecticut with melancholy. What effect do these opposing landscapes have on the depiction of Mary's life story? What emotions do you associate with the landscape of your youth?
  • Besides the storyline mentioned in the subtitle, "My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's," what are some of the other transformations described in the book? While Mary descends into the disease, are there any ascendant qualities to this chapter of her life?
  • How might you have reacted to Eleanor's situation if you had been in Mitch's shoes? How do Mary's "supporting men" differ from one another, from her husbands to the male patients at Sheffield House?
  • One of the most wrenching tasks Eleanor faces is the excavation of her mother's possessions from the house in which she'd lived for forty years. The senseless destruction of her mother's favorite typewriters is especially significant. What artifacts best define your life? Describe a meaningful token that you have inherited from a relative.
  • What has your family's approach to eldercare been? Ideally, how would your own final years be spent? What is your opinion of the American system for dealing with long-term illness?
  • The effects of Alzheimer's can be as varied as those afflicted with it. In what ways was Mary's experience with the disease shaped by her former career as a writer? Do you believe that Eleanor's life as a writer prepared her for the challenge of caring for Mary, or did it exacerbate an already difficult situation?
  • Eleanor Cooney has written several works of fiction. Discuss the novelists' techniques that may have influenced her telling of this story.
  • How does Eleanor portray the dynamic between her brother, her mother, and herself? What is the impact of Mary's illness on this tiny family unit?
  • What does Mary's eviction from The Hostel indicate about the extent of her condition? What are your theories about why the brash side of her personality emerges there?
  • Rather than recalling time in a linear way, Eleanor incorporates carefully chosen flashbacks with the present. How does this tactic influence your assessment of the book's characters?
  • What is the effect of ending the book with the anecdote about Mary's overnight stay with another patient? How does this scene compare with your early assumptions about the conclusion?
  • The book's epigraph, a quote from Nelson Algren, begins with the words "all was well." Is "all well" in the final chapter of Death in Slow Motion? About the Author: Eleanor Cooney is the author of four previous books, all coauthored with Daniel Altieri: Deception: A Novel of Mystery and Madness in Ancient China; The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'Ang Dynasty; Shangri-La: The Return to the World of the Lost Horizon; and Shore of Pearls: A Tale of Seventh Century China. She lives in Mendocino, California.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2012

    This is a remarkable book written by a wonderful author about an

    This is a remarkable book written by a wonderful author about an amazing life. Eleanor Cooney's touching memoir about caring for her mother is NOT a self-help book. It is a vibrant and gripping biography in which you, the reader, are there face-to-face with a most formidable adversary that is affecting so many families and households today. As we journey with Eleanor while her mother descends into Alzheimer's, we are reminded in the author's own words that "No Life should pass unnoticed."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2003

    Wonderful in-sight

    This book is an excellent book to read to understand the tribulations that the family members of people with Alzheimers have in dealing with the decline in life that the person has and how it not only affects the person but those around them who love them and wish that everything could be the way it was before. I could not put the book down once I started reading it. It moves right along and is one of the best books regarding this disease that I have read.

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