Could I create a likeable, but realistic character who suffered from Alzheimer’s?

Anette Dashofy, author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series shares a bit of her caregiver story and how she created a very special character in her book, Lost Legacy, to honor her father. Welcome Annette.

Bobbi Carducci and I met and bonded many years ago in the hospitality suite of a Pennwriters Conference, commiserating about our roles as caregivers—she for her father-in-law and I for my dad. Sisters in the battle to maintain a real life while providing comfort for not-always-cooperative loved ones.

Of course, being writers, we both chose to share our emotions through the printed word. Her book is a lovely memoir. Mine, a work of fiction. Lost Legacy is the second in my Zoe Chambers mystery series.

This book has been a story of my heart, and as thrilled as I was to get the first one published, this one is special. Lost Legacy is dedicated to the memory of my dad, who—like Harry—Pete Adams’ father in the book, suffered from Alzheimer’s. Harry is NOT my dad. My dad’s illness was dark and ugly and complicated with strokes. Dad couldn’t walk without assistance, but didn’t remember, so he fell. Repeatedly. Loss of independence, combined with the ravaging effects on his mind, made him short-tempered and…well…just plain mean at times. He lost his ability to internally edit or use good judgment. He struck out verbally at those he most loved, reducing my mom to tears on more than one occasion.

Could I take such a hideous disease that reduced my strong, take-charge dad into a wheelchair-bound, helpless and angry man and write a fictional character who didn’t make the reader slam the book closed? Could I create a likeable, but realistic character who suffered from Alzheimer’s? There are a lot of readers out there with family members dealing with this or similar dementia ailments, and I knew they would call me out big time if I didn’t get it right.

But I really wanted to create this character of Harry. I’ve been the caregiver daughter who dreamed of running away. Like Pete, my own loving brother had difficulties watching our father deteriorate—though not as badly as Pete! As writers do, I took those relationships and magnified them. Played the what-if game.

Instead of focusing on the darkest parts of my dad’s illness, I used a lot of his more lovable quirks in creating Harry Adams. Spending time with Harry was like having a little bit of my dad around…the part I remember fondly. His addiction to chocolate milkshakes. The way he called everyone “Sunshine.” His mischievous grin.

I hope I succeeded in creating a real representation of an Alzheimer’s patient and the people around him. I think I did. So far my readers have given me thumbs up for the effort. Harry may have been the biggest challenge of my writing life (so far!), but he’s also become my favorite character. And the one I’m most proud of.

Also, I’m donating a portion of my royalties for Lost Legacy to the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of Dad…and of Harry.

Note: Although Annette was unaware of it when she named him, Harry shares his name with my father, the late Harry Simpson. It seems Annette and I are connected in ways that go beyond the love of writing and I am proud to know her.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Ellen Barnes
    Sep 24, 2014 @ 18:48:10

    I have not cared for a person with Alzheimer’s though my mother died of it, but for years I cared for my husband, who had a form of dementia caused by hepatic encephalopathy. He had end-stage liver disease. Dementia is dementia, no matter the cause. I recall trying to work, care for a middle-schooler and be the caregiver for my husband who was terminally ill, and he was not particularly grateful for the assistance I gave him. He referred to me as “Nurse Ratchett” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). I remember he called me at work one day and asked me to drive to his HMO to get a prescription for Demerol. The RX could not be called in. A written prescription had to be personally obtained from the doctor. This request meant driving 45 minutes from my office to his physician’s office, waiting, retrieving the prescription, driving back to work for another 45 minutes, all on a single hour lunch period. The actual script would have to be filled after work. I called the doctor and requested the prescription. He said he’d write it. I sneaked out of work to pick it up. When I got to the doctor’s office, he’d gone to lunch and NOT written the prescription. I was becoming hysterical. My job was on shaky ground because of my conflicting commitments. Finally, a pediatrician in the office took pity on me and said he would write the prescription. He did – but wrote it for half the amount requested. I was leaving when my husband’s doctor returned. He said “give me the prescription and I’ll rewrite it for the requested amount.” In complete meltdown mode I shouted down the hallway “Ask him to double it – with any luck, he’ll (my husband) take them all at once!!” The staff and patients in the waiting room looked horrified. I felt guilty later, but sometimes you just have let off steam.



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