Rosa Mezquita and her son Dionis shared their Alzheimer’s story in the Massachusetts State House earlier this year as Alzheimer’s Association advocates. They fight for an end to Alzheimer’s in honor of Persio, Rosa’s husband and Dionis’ father, who they lost to the disease.
My father was living in the Dominican Republic when he first lost his way. He would get confused when he was driving and end up in the wrong places. My family said: “Papi, you cannot drive anymore,” but my father, a former police superintendent, was stubborn. He stole the car keys and went out alone. Sometimes it would take him four or five hours to get back to the house.
One day we were in the car together, traveling to Santo Domingo. It was a two-hour drive, and I took a shortcut to make better time.
Since I took a different route than my father was familiar with, he got upset. “Why don’t you take the other way? It’s faster than this. Take Washington Avenue!”
We were on Washington Avenue. “Papi,” I said, “Look at the signs. What do you see there?”
As my father realized that we were, in fact, on Washington Avenue, he fell silent. He was quiet for a very long time, maybe a full ten minutes. The situation was a complete shock for him.
As happens with so many families, I didn’t put a lot of focus on this at first, but I did talk to my mom and two sisters. “Oh, he’s just tired,” my mother said. “He will be okay.” My sister, a psychology student, reminded me that my father’s parents had both had Alzheimer’s disease. That realization was a difficult moment.
Soon after, my father didn’t seem to know anything. He forgot how to eat. He forgot how to shower. Seven years ago, when his neighbors called to tell us that he was not doing well, it was clear that he needed to join us in the United States. He worked to gain citizenship, living with us in Massachusetts, but the disease continued to progress, and eventually we had to make the decision that it was time for him to move into a nursing home facility.
When he was still living at home, my father had seven pills he had to take, but he would save the sleeping pill under his tongue. One day when my mother and sister were visiting at the nursing home, they found 20 pills hiding behind a chair on the floor. Somehow my father was able to control that exact pill, hiding it where he thought no one would find it. He spent his life in the police force, having control. He was still trying to hold onto that control where he could. I couldn’t blame him for that.
Speaking at the Massachusetts State House in his honor – drawing attention to the Latino experience with Alzheimer’s, especially – was an amazing experience. We advocated on behalf of my father and we represented our family and our culture. My mother and I didn’t know that all kinds of people from all walks of life have some of those same problems and hurdles when coping with dementia.
Many Latinos will not ask for help when they need it. More guidance is needed so that more Latino people know about dementia and the signs of Alzheimer’s. In my birth country, people think of a nursing home or memory care as a mental institution for people who are crazy. People need to be educated about how a nursing home can be the best choice for certain people in situations where they can no longer give their loved one the best care. It is important to learn and ask for help. People shouldn’t be afraid to do that.
The Hispanic/Latino community still needs more attention. I’ve seen many people allow a person with Alzheimer’s to slip away, or live in filth, and not look for assistance when this is happening. We need to communicate more, and people need to look for resources in their native language. That is why I advocate, and that is why I am here to do anything I can to help end Alzheimer’s.
10 Signs (content in Spanish)
Advocate (content in English)