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Helping Janet

January 30, 2009

Janet Mitchell was a prominent physician in New York City and a local and national leader in women's health. She was tough, opinionated, and self sufficient. It wasn't unusual for her to ignore someone's phone call if she didn't want to answer, so it took awhile before friends and family noticed that something was wrong. After all, who expects the onset of dementia at the age of 55?

Dr. Blanche Hughes and her sister Janet Mitchell“Janet is very strong-willed, so it was difficult to identify what was wrong,” says Dr. Blanche Hughes (MED ’84, Ph.D. ’95), vice president of Student Affairs at Colorado State University, and Janet’s sister.

Warning signs

Hughes and her eldest sister Dorothy went to investigate after hearing complaints and concerns about Janet. “The house was a mess. We thought it was depression,” Hughes says.

A few months later, the family met in Washington, D.C., for a birthday party. As a graduate of Howard University, Janet had made the drive between New York City and D.C. many times, but this time she got lost and couldn’t describe her location to her family. Hughes knew something was wrong and resolved to bring Janet to Colorado.

Helping Janet

Hughes and Janet never had a close, sisterly relationship, but that wasn’t important in Hughes’ decision to take care of her ailing sister. “The bottom line is: She’s my sister. You’re supposed to do this,” she says. Just six years older than Hughes, Janet is in great physical health, but her ability to stay focused, recognize people, and remain safe is disappearing. After seven months of living with Hughes and her family, Janet was moved to an unlocked assisted-living facility. As Janet became more confused, she wandered more, and would get lost. After nine months, it was necessary for her to live in a secure assisted-living facility.

Brain atrophy

According to Janet’s neuropsychologist, Janet has severe brain atrophy. The type of dementia she has prevents her from knowing that something is wrong. That’s why many dementia patients get frustrated with all the doctors’ visits and medications they must take – according to the patient, nothing’s wrong. For a long time, Hughes was the only person from whom her sister would take medications. “But now she’s mad at me – I don’t know why – and will only take her medicine from my son or daughter,” she says.

Helping Janet is a daily activity for Hughes, and a balancing act with the rest of her responsibilities. Hughes is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of two, and vice president of Student Affairs. “My family is very supportive and willing to share me with all of my obligations,” she says.

To take care of her sister, Hughes says she went through a process of accepting her sister’s condition and their relationship. “I don’t have the luxury of living in the past. I have to accept her where she is,” she says.

The results of caregiving

Trying situations such as these do have rewards. Getting to know the people who work in the eldercare industry has been important to Hughes, and watching her son interact with Janet has been inspiring. “It helps to see a caring side of a typical teenage boy,” she says.

Hughes’ advice to those embarking on this emotional journey: get support, whether it is help from your family, hiring someone to come in, or therapy. Hughes is working on taking her own advice. “I try to do it all, but I’m getting better at asking for help,” she says.

This is not Hughes’ first time at caretaking, nor does she think it’s the last. She took care of both her parents until their deaths, and she knows the day will come when she and her husband will care for his mother. Caregiving is part of her persona. “I’m a caregiver. That’s why I’m in Student Affairs,” she says with a smile.

This article was originally published in Around the Oval magazine. To subscribe to Around the Oval, become a member of the CSU Alumni Association.

Contact: Beth Etter
Phone: (970) 491-6533