Mary Edwards-Olson knows what it’s like to lose her mother, Olson learned the unique challenge of losing her mother while she was still alive. Olson lost her mother, Betty Edwards, to Alzheimer’s disease in 2017.
The Calallen native grew up having her mother as her best friend and confidant.
“My mother was everyone’s mother at school,” said Olson. “People who didn’t even like me would call her ‘mom’. The school used a (solo) cup system to monitor behavior at lunch. There were green, yellow and red cups. If the class landed on yellow or red, their recess was impacted. My mother would change all the cups to green. They eventually did away with the cups.”
Olson had a very close relationship with her mother, saying they were more ‘best friends’ than mother and daughter. It was this close relationship that led Olson to realize that things were a little off with her mother’s phone calls. Olson’s parents had left their home in Corpus Christi and moved to Johnson City, TN, where her father had accepted a position at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital.
“I was in law school at the time (2012) and I would get these weird phone calls from my mom. I was in Ft. Worth, so I thought maybe it was separation anxiety. She would be convinced that my dad was going to die or something,” said Olson.
When Olson began to notice the difference in her mother becoming more and more steady, she put law school on hold and moved to Tennessee to be near her parents. She admits to floating around at first, but by the time she was 23 or 24, she had found some friends and was beginning to plan her wedding.
Around this time, Olson and her father realized they needed that Betty needed some medical help. They took her to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 72.
“She came with me to look at wedding dresses and I would come out of the dressing room and she had disappeared in the store. The personality changes were definitely the first things we noticed,” said Olson.
Olson could see and feel her mother changing, but none of them could fully comprehend the changes that were happening. Around this time, Olson got married and moved to Pittsburgh with her husband, she had two children.
“I was fighting with my mother. I should have been fighting with the disease, but you never know what to do in the moment,” said Olson.
When Olson’s parents would come to visit, it was always bittersweet. Betty would try to babysit Olson’s young children, but her body and mind would not cooperate.
“It was hard to see because all she had ever wanted was to be a grandmother,” said Olson.
Olson and her family felt it was best to move back to Johnson City to be near her parents. When they got back to Tennessee, Olson was able to realize how dire the situation was. Betty was getting lost around town and becoming unable to find her way home while out running errands. She became very trusting and the people of Johnson City helped her find her way home, but Olson and her father were concerned that one day, she may trust the wrong person and find trouble. They took away Betty’s keys, something that was hard for all of them to come to terms with.
“Part of Alzheimer’s is you go through these hard decision moments,” said Olson, reliving the last few years of Betty’s life. “The whole time, you’re getting closer and closer to losing someone you love.”
Olson was in the process of raising her two young children and trying to provide the care that her mother needed. Olson’s father was working full time at the hospital and about this time in the progression of Betty’s disease, Betty became unable to sleep and was experiencing ‘sundowners’. She would confuse her days and nights, leading to her caretaker, be that her husband or Olson, being unable to sleep.
“I remember one of the worst nights, my mother was on the floor crying for me ‘Mary, why won’t you help me? Why won’t you come help me?’. One of my biggest regrets was yelling. I would pray and pray that Mom would go to sleep,” said Olson.
Betty fell ill and needed surgery in 2016, having her in the hospital presented new challenges and eventually led to Olson and her father to put Betty into an assisted living facility.
“I told my father ‘We don’t have to put Mom in there forever, let’s just put her there until tomorrow and then if that works, we’ll go from there’,” said Olson.
The time at the facility proved to be good for Betty and for Olson and her family. They visited every day and Betty was able to find some stability.
Olson and her family ‘broke Betty out’ for one last trip to the coast during 2016. According to Olson, Betty loved to listen to the birds and watch her grandchildren play. When the family returned Tennessee, Betty began to decline and Olson could sense that the end was near for her mother.
During this time, Olson had published her first children’s book, dealing with Alzheimer’s, entitled When the Sun Shines Through. Betty was able to enjoy her daughter’s success during little stolen moments.
Betty passed away in the arms of Olson.
“I remember the day she forgot who I was, the day she couldn’t say ‘I love you, darling’,” said Olson. “I remember sitting there holding her had begging her to say ‘I love you’.”
This terrible sadness was the catalyst Olson needed to bring her pain to good. Olson through herself into raising money for Alzheimer’s Tennessee, a non-profit organization that helps those struggling with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Her family sponsors the Elizabeth Edwards Grant for Hope and works with the families and caretakers of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
“Since my mother’s death, we have raised over $30,000 to combat this disease,” said Olson. “I spent time being mad at my mother and I should have been mad at the disease. The person you love is still in there.”
Olson feels it would be “unjust” if she didn’t tell her mother’s story and she is finding ways to do that.
“My mom, she may be gone, but she’s still so much alive in doing good,” said Olson.
Olson will have her second book, Grandpa, Is That You?, available in stores next week. Her books are/will be available at Barnes and Nobles, Books A Million, Amazon and many local bookstores around the country and the world.