Denver Bar Association
February 2006
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The Path to Peace

by Stacy Chesney

Ididn’t know my mother loved me until the last three years of her life," says Kathleen Negri, an elder law attorney and author of the book, Mom, Are You There? Finding a Path to Peace Through Alzheimer’s. Describing her mother as a stereotypical 1950s mom who devoted her time to cooking and cleaning, Negri says the two never developed a bond for the first 40 years of her life. When the news of her mom’s illness hit, Negri was paralyzed. "I was like a deer in headlights. I didn’t know what options I had. The fact that we were never close made it that much harder."

Negri’s initial attempts to help her mother and family were futile, as she tried to take on the role she thought would make everything function: housekeeper. "I did this for a year, driven by my own agenda. I realized how bad and angry I felt, and finally saw that it was my own definition of myself in this role that was bringing me down."

Realizing she had a choice to deal with Alzheimer’s in a positive or negative way forever impacted Negri’s life. "I learned I needed to understand, be proactive, expect the unexpected, and then mine my relationship with my mother."

Once Negri shed her expectations of what she thought she had to do, she was able to enjoy time with her mother. Setting aside a few hours every Tuesday morning, she unfailingly visited her mother once a week for the last three years of her life, but relinquished her housekeeping duties. Negri realized that her mother’s inability to clean her own house was devastating, because it signaled her loss of capabilities. With this new role, however, says Negri: "Everything shifted. I became her playmate instead. We walked, read books, and went to the mall. My function was to connect with her. … What started off really awful became really beautiful."

Negri’s approach to dealing with Alzheimer’s is unique, describing the disease as "a gift" — an unusual and shocking designation to most. "Some people think I’m a Pollyanna, but I’ve learned it’s about how you choose to embrace your
parent’s dementia. … Adjust your expectations. Cut yourself some slack."

Her book outlines her journey to peace by learning to "be" rather than "do," and addresses these three main questions: Who can I turn to for information and support? How do I prepare myself for this journey? How can I stay open to the gifts this experience has to offer?

Being a lawyer as well as a caregiver, Negri found it difficult to balance the two distinct roles. "As lawyers, we want to have all the answers. … Many think there’s a stigma in having relatives with dementia." Working with clients who had the same issues was a challenge emotionally, mentally and professionally in her law practice. She stopped practicing for a month, regretting she didn’t take control sooner: "I could have committed malpractice."

Motivated by her personal journey and spurred by the
conviction that elder care is a risk factor for lawyers, Negri developed a plan. After authoring her book, she approached CBA–CLE with a program to offer lawyers a safe environment to turn for information and support. "When the Diagnosis is Alzheimer’s: Issues and Solutions for Counselors and Caregivers" was born.

An "A to Z" primer on the disease, the program on Feb. 8 addresses "both sides of the brain," by including Negri’s story, as well as legal, ethical, financial and medical issues, community resources, and communication techniques. In addition, five other experts will be on hand to answer one-on-one questions. Materials include an extensive resource packet, a copy of Negri’s book, and handouts from each presenter. The course is appropriate for anyone with clients or loved-ones dealing with long-term illness, especially one that includes dementia.

"Education is the foundation upon which you’ll find your way through this disease," says Negri. "I didn’t know the resources that were available to me."

With 63,000 Coloradans suffering from Alzheimer’s, 140,000 anticipated in the next 20 years, and one in three families across the United States dealing with Alzheimer’s, dementia is on the rise. For lawyers, the issue may hit close to home in more than one way; a client or client family member, loved one, or even firm member may have the disease. This potential for overlap could easily have a negative impact on attorneys’ lives and practices.

Says Negri: "My tools will make your path easier. I’ve been there, I know about it, I know the struggles you face, let me help you."

 


For more information about Kathleen Negri, her book, Mom, Are You There? Finding a Path to Peace Through Alzheimer’s, and additional Alzheimer’s resources, visit
http://www.steppingstonestopeace.com/. To register for the Feb. 8 program, “When the Diagnosis is Alzheimer’s: Issues and Solutions for Counselors and Caregivers,” visit http://www.cobar.org/cle/ or call (303) 860-2531.


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