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Hairdresser Love From the Daughter of a Client With Dementia

Maggie Mulhern | May 12, 2017 | 6:14 AM
Sylvia Reichman, seated, with from left, Tobi Becker and Sylvia's sisters Judy and Elaine.

MODERN heard from our former fashion stylist, Tobi Becker, who wanted to share her story of how a beauty pro helped to trigger action when she noticed her mother was not "herself." Check out this journey. It's enlightening.

Most people don’t truly understand what it is like to have a parent or loved one with dementia. It actually turns your world upside down and inside out. Nothing is what it used to be and no one can give you answers or cures. Doctors can’t tell you if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s or other diseases that cause dementia unless they autopsy their brain after death. It slowly sucks the inside personality and soul out of your loved one leaving the shell only. In this case of dementia, it happened to my sweet mother, Sylvia.

I first noticed a change when I went to the mall with my mother.  A little background on our shopping history:

Shopping was our “thing”. From the time I was a little girl, she would take me to Saks in Short Hills, NJ to have lunch and shop.  She always said I would exhaust her trying on so many potential outfits, so she would buy me everything in the dressing room just so we could leave the store.  We were even at Saks when President Kennedy was assassinated and the announcement came over the loud speaker in the store evoking screams echoed in all departments.  Our other go to store was Lord & Taylor in nearby Millburn to have lunch at the Bird Cage (sitting sideways in the chairs was so cool) and ordering tea sandwiches and ice box cake from the dessert cart rolled to us.

Fast forward to 2015 going to the Short Hills Mall and my mother standing in the middle of Neiman Marcus holding on to a rack of clothes looking like a deer in headlights.  It almost looked like she was being consumed by the clothing.  Nothing about being in the mall, looking for a pair of black pants for her, was connecting to her brain. 

Something so “us” was not clicking.  I was confused and shaken by the experience and quickly decided we should just leave rather than trying to push her to try on black pants. My mother started to tell us that she was experiencing a feeling of low energy and spiraling down, but couldn’t really articulate more than that.  We were also spiraling with her.

At around that same time, I received a call while I was at Lord and Taylor trying on clothes (thank you mother for giving me that gene!) from our mutual hair stylist that my mother had missed a step coming into her salon…this could happen, but it was all adding up…something was not right with her.  My mother was fine, but the salon owner just wanted me to know something was a bit off. Wow, I will never forget that act of kindness she showed! It was that act of kindness that really forced us to act.

Where do we start, what doctor do we call?  We started with her internist who was no help and wouldn’t even prescribe an anti depressant. We eventually had CT scans of her brain and went to a top neurologist in NYC.

We are now all somewhat “calmed down” and resting in the mid dementia stage.  Keeping the speed of the disease hopefully slowed down through medications, but there is no cure.  Our current neurologist has told us she won’t be in your world, so you have to modify and adjust to hers.

Raising awareness for this disease (and others) has become my passion.  If you are a professional working with seniors with a range of disabilities, being compassionate and kind to your clients is so meaningful to the families going through so much stress. Help your senior clients in your salon. Smile at them. Engage in conversation like you would with any client even if they don’t really engage in a discussion back to you. The salon environment is a powerful place for anyone, particularly for anyone suffering with dementia or any disability.

I am particularly grateful to Lauren, the salon owner and to the staff of the Platform Hair Studio, Westfield, NJ. A stylist would come outside to my car to help my mother in with an umbrella if it was raining. I never asked her, she just did it and I will never forget that. So simple, yet so overlooked.

Through all the repeated questions and repeated words, all her independence taken away, unsteady walking, depression and an upside down and inside out new world, “Sweet Sylvia,” now 83, still insists on us taking her for her weekly “beauty parlor” appointments. It is one of the most important moments of her week - and I must say, she still has great hair.

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