Blogging Alzheimers
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Blogging Alzheimers

Fort Lee man charts his mother's course - and writes letters to the Times

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Robert Nussbaum and his mother, Dorothy Nussbaum, at one of her last family outings, around 2008.

Robert Nussbaum’s mother, Dorothy Smith Nussbaum, is almost 97 years old.

Although in reality she lives in Fort Lee, for the last few years her Alzheimer’s-attacked mind often tells her that, instead, she is in the candy store her family used to own in Lodi.

Often speaking in Yiddish, she relives those days. They were happy ones. She had three sisters – each of whom not only graduated from college but also went to graduate school – and a brother, Harvey Smith, who later went on to become a prominent judge. (It was Mr. Smith, in fact, who was responsible for the judicial decision that allowed 274 acres of Tenafly woods to become the Tenafly Nature Center.)

Mr. Nussbaum, who lives with his wife, Joanne, in Fort Lee, is a lawyer by profession, but increasingly he has found that life as he lives it compels him to write about it.

One of his subjects is his mother.

A few things distinguish Mr. Nussbaum from the other would-be-writer attorneys who similarly have much to say and would like an audience for their work.

For one thing, he started small. He began blogging in 2008; tooearlytocall.com holds a range of his writing – on dementia, politics, the Yankees, and golf, among many other subjects, as well as some fiction.

Now, one of his pieces on Alzheimer’s is about to be published in the latest “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book, this one subtitled “Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.” It will be his fifth contribution to the series.

Mr. Nussbaum also specializes in letters to the editor; he has had more than 35 published in that Holy Grail of American letters-to-the-editor, the New York Times. (If you are English, for generations the Times of London has been the summit.)

Another of Mr. Nussbaum’s distinctions is that he is a third-generation Bergen County boy. When his mother grew up in Lodi, she belonged to one of five local Jewish families. When she married, she and her husband, Richard Nussbaum, moved to Teaneck, where Robert and his sister, Gail Nussbaum Kaplan of Englewood, grew up. The family belonged to Temple Emeth, then in its glory days; the rabbi, Louis Sigel, who helped the township become the first in the country to desegregate its school system voluntarily, presided at his bar mitzvah and later performed his wedding.

After he graduated from law school, Robert Nussbaum married Joanne Friedland, who grew up in Tenafly. (The only time either of them lived outside Bergen County was when they were in college, Mr. Nussbaum reports.) They began their married life in Fort Lee, moved to Tenafly to raise their children, and now, as empty-nesters, have moved back to Fort Lee.

Richard Nussbaum, a lawyer who graduated first in his NYU law school class, died when he was 61 years old, in 1971. Dorothy Nussbaum, who had been a high-school English teacher in Hackensack until she became a mother, lived alone, happily and competently, occasionally complaining about her failing memory but exhibiting no troubling symptoms, until she turned 90.

Then it became clear that she could no longer live without a caretaker, her son said. The problems he and his sister faced are familiar to many middle-aged people lucky enough still to have parents. His mother drove longer than she should have. By the time her last license was not renewed, “She could remember how to go to only a few places – Montammy Golf Club, on Route 9W, or Bischoff’s and Louie’s Charcoal Pit on Cedar Lane in Teaneck,” her son said. “Toward the end of the time she was still driving, once or twice she’d call me and say, ‘I’m here, but I don’t know how to get there.'” She had a minor accident, could not remember either how it happened or how to get home, and needed a police escort. That was when she stopped driving.

“We were very lucky that nothing more significant happened,” Mr. Nussbaum said. Still, the decision to stop his mother from driving was agonizing. “Their car and living alone are the last two vestiges of people’s independence,” he said. “When we take those things away, people feel as if their lives are over.”

Ms. Nussbaum had a fear of living in a nursing home, even a very good one, her son said. “She would always say, ‘Don’t put me there.’ That stuck with my sister and me. We couldn’t do it.”

He sometimes questions that decision, Mr. Nussbaum said, although he does not think it was the wrong one. “But it hasn’t been easy – not for us, not for the caretakers, and not for her.”

Mr. Nussbaum’s writing about his mother is direct and honest; it is moving, and at times it is lovely. It addresses head-on some of the issues about which other people, those not in his situation, might wonder.

His mother now is blind; when she does speak, which is infrequent, it often is not easy to understand what she is saying, even when it is in English. Both Mr. Nussbaum and Ms. Kaplan visit her frequently; they try to enter her world because she no longer can return to theirs, Mr. Nussbaum said. They talk to her, even though she cannot answer them.

The story he contributed to “Chicken Soup for the Soul” describes how one day he walked into her room and heard Frank Sinatra’s voice coming from her stereo. His was the music of her adolescence and young adulthood, and it comforted her. This time, in the middle of Mr. Nussbaum’s one-sided conversation, “all of a sudden my mom’s arm came up, as if she were conducting,” he said. “And then she started to sing. She sang along perfectly with the Sinatra song for a verse or two, and then she was quiet again.”

Since then, Sinatra often plays in her room, and Mr. Nussbaum, in one of the role reversals that is a primary feature of dealing with parents with Alzheimer’s, sings to her. “She likes my singing, even though no one else does,” he said.

Mr. Nussbaum’s letters to the New York Times are different in tone than his writing about his mother. Last week, the newspaper’s new Times Insider section – its new pay wall, where once again it is trying to find some way to monetize its web presence – featured a look at some of its most prolific letter-writers, including Mr. Nussbaum.

The editor of the Letters section, Thomas Feyer, emailed 35 of the paper’s most faithful and most published correspondents. He asked each of them three questions, including one about the effect that having written so many letters has had on the writer’s life.

“Insomnia,” Mr. Nussbaum wrote. That, too, was published.

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