On Mother’s Day, after a discouraging attempt to make Neiman Marcus’ chocolate chip cookies inspired by memories of mother-daughter shopping trips, Julie Barrier faced a heart wrenching question.
“Do you want to see your mom?” read the text from her mother’s caregiver as Julie was pulling up with flowers and groceries. It had been 10 weeks since their visits had gone virtual, just before LA’s lockdown.
“That was a very, very emotional moment for me during all of this because what am I supposed to answer?” she recalls in the moments leading up to their masked reunion in the building’s lobby.
“I’m just standing there with groceries,” says Julie. “My mom had her eyes super wide. She couldn’t even talk, she couldn’t say anything, she didn’t know what to do. She’s holding on to the caregiver’s arm and then she just breaks away…comes shuffling really fast over to me and just puts her arms around me and holds me, and I hold her seriously for at least five minutes.”
Part of what weighed so heavily on Julie’s mind is that her mother has Alzheimer’s, which makes it hard to explain masks and social distancing.
“Eventually we kind of lighten the grip and we look at each other in the eyes and she stares at me with our masks,” she says. “I’m now face to face with her and she goes, ‘are you mad at me?’ and I was like ‘no, Mom. Not at all.’”
It was a moment that Julie will never forget and it motivated her to make weekly COVID tests part of her routine: a complex system managing two grocery deliveries at a time, two sets of finances, two caregivers and her full-time job—all designed to honor her mother with the comforts she’s accustomed to.
“My mom was always a knockout,” she says. “She gets stopped in the street. People will be like ‘you’re so beautiful, are you famous, are you (this or that)?’ She’s been like that all of her life.”
Before the pandemic, Julie made sure her mother got dressed and put on her Sephora makeup to go out to lunch and runs errands with her caregivers.
“As human beings we have accountability to each other, and especially if it’s our parent who did all this for us,” she says. “And it feels really good to do nice things for somebody. Just because you think someone won’t remember, can’t recall or doesn’t know who you are, they actually know and feel a lot more than you think they do. But they can’t express it.”
After years of caring for her mother in private, Julie shared her experiences in “The Beautiful, Blissful Side of Alzheimer’s” to help bring awareness to the incredible relationship that can emerge during an otherwise difficult situation.
“We all need the same things, which is love, and tenderness, and touch, and human connection, and a feeling of protection and safety,” she says. “Those are just basic needs. It starts as a baby and it ends like that in this disease, especially.”
As the roles in Julie’s mother-daughter relationship reversed, she found herself caring for her mother with a newfound affection that typically comes when we begin our own journeys as mothers.
“I wasn’t someone who would just go hug and touch and kiss her,” she says about growing up. “Now, it’s like the opposite. But it feels totally good and natural.”
The feeling is mutual. Julie says one of her mom’s favorite things to do when they can safely visit is to hold her hands and kiss them. She kisses the phone when they FaceTime.
“My mom is still my mom and I try to make sure that she always knows that,” she says. “She’s my baby now to take care of and make sure that she doesn’t have stress, worries, that she doesn’t have fear.”
“Maybe this is why I didn’t have kids,” she says. “Because maybe, in fact, what I was meant to do was this.”
It took Julie a long time to find the courage to share her story. Now she encourages others to do the same to help bring the experience of Alzheimer’s out of the shadows. She doesn’t want anyone to feel like they have to hide or go through it alone.
“If we choose to bury it, we’re running away from it and we’re ashamed,” she says. “And there’s nothing about her or her condition that I’m ashamed of. I’m proud of her.”