Dementia steals the life of Burgettstown woman
Inability to remember loved ones a sad fate for Alzheimer's patients

Anna Snatchko is usually in bed by 7 o'clock every night in her home at the Burgettstown Highrise for the Elderly. Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Anna gets a kiss goodnight from her granddaughter, Katie, before the light are turned out.
BURGETTSTOWN – Anna Snatchko was always the “cool” mom, and when her kids had kids, she quickly became the cool grandma.

Katie Fehl, one of Anna's granddaughters, remembers a night about 12 years ago when she and her teenage friends were playing a card game called Signal with Anna in her trailer.

“It was the funniest night. I will never forget that night. We had nothing but belly laughs,” said Katie, now 27.

Anna, Katie said, was always a buxom woman, and the harder Anna laughed, the harder Katie and her friends laughed. “She was bouncing everywhere,” Katie said, the memory triggering a melancholy smile from the young mother of four.

Anna and Katie still spend a considerable amount of time together.

Unfortunately, the laughter is gone, forever stolen when Anna's mind and body became trapped in the evil clutches of stage IV dementia.

Anna, 86, no longer remembers the faces, much less the names, of her family. She is incontinent, unable to chew or bathe herself, and the crystal blue eyes that once sparkled brightly often stare vacantly ahead.

Anna Snatchko poses for a photo in happier days with her daughters, Judy Souffrant of Weirton, W.Va., and Betty Brooks of McDonald.
And even though she attended the funerals for two of her sons, Ronnie and Dave, she didn't know why she was there.

“My mom has a beautiful soul stuck inside that body,” said Betty Brooks, 55, of McDonald, Anna's daughter and primary caregiver, whose life became an emotional roller-coaster when Anna began to develop dementia in 2006.

Happy and healthy
By all accounts, Anna was always a busy, vibrant woman.

She married George Snatchko, on Jan. 31, 1944, when she was 16 years old. The couple settled in Bulger, where they raised nine children and operated several local businesses, including a gas station, a clothing material shop and a bar. When their kids took over the bar, Anna would watch her grandkids.

Until about 18 months ago, when she was hospitalized with arrhythmia, Anna was an avid card player, with 500 rummy being her best game.

“Boy, would she kick your butt at 500 rum,” Katie said. “It was very rare you ever played cards with her and won.”

Even though Anna was a good housekeeper, she wasn't the best cook, Katie said. “Pappy cooked. She made buttered toast for me, but she'd burn it every time.”

Betty remembers that as she got older, she and Anna became more than mother and daughter. They became friends.

“Mommy was fun,” Betty said. “Me and her would hang out together. We ran together. We'd play bingo and go bowling together.”

And as Anna's family grew, first with grandkids, then great-grandkids, so did her pride. She would keep a snapshot of them tucked in a small plastic bag in her purse. She took it with her everywhere she went and show it off to everybody and anybody. To this day, Anna immediately flashes a smile that would melt anyone's heart whenever her great-grandkids are around.

Mind games
When Anna's husband died in August 1999, she lived with Betty for four years before moving to Burgettstown Highrise for the Elderly.

She did relatively well on her own for about three years, when family and friends began to notice subtle changes in her behavior. Anna would repeat herself and tell white lies.

“I got a call from my sister-in-law saying your mom is lying,” Betty said. “I would call and say, 'Mommy, why are you lying?' She would cry and say, 'I don't know.'”

There also were times Anna would call Betty, and she'd be crying, mumbling about something.

“I'd get in the truck and rush over,” Betty said. “She didn't remember calling me. … Everybody thought she just wanted attention.”

Eventually, though, there were more visible signs that something was seriously wrong.

She began wandering, and there was the day Anna took everything out of the freezer and placed it on the counter. By the time Betty arrived, all of the food was three-quarters thawed. “I had to cook everything,” she said.

But the “last straw,” Betty said, was when Anna was cooking hot dogs on the stove and left her apartment.

“We thought she was going crazy,” Katie said.

Constant care
Anna now requires 24-hour care, which is provided by a contingent of family members. Katie and her cousin, Kara Snatchko, each care for Anna three days a week; Anna's daughter, Judy Souffrant of Weirton, W.Va., spends one night, and Betty takes the evening and overnight shifts, plus Saturdays.

In the beginning, Anna's son, Larry, was spending two nights a week. Betty took four, she said, “not realizing how hard it was going to be.” When Larry became sick, Betty inherited his nights.

“Betty does an amazing job,” said Lexi Opal, a registered nurse with Washington Health System Hospice who has been visiting Anna's apartment twice a week for the past 19 months. “She has no skin breakdowns. She gets a lot of stimulation, love and support. Betty is task-oriented.”

Added Betty, “I make my mom use her walker to keep her legs going.”

But it's not always easy.

Anna has had several transient ischemic attacks, which are similar to a stroke but last only a few minutes. Each TIA results in a further decline in her health.

She also can be very combative, especially at sunset. She suffers from what is known as sundown syndrome, a time when folks with Alzheimer's disease or dementia become more confused and agitated.

She gets aggressive when she goes without her oxygen for any length of time. Anna was a longtime smoker and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There was a time, not that long ago, that she would shut off her oxygen because she thought it was the heater. The family even hid the oxygen tank behind the dresser, but she found it.

And just recently, Anna had some bruising on her arm, the result of a struggle when Betty tried to change Anna's soaked diaper in the middle of the night. Anna was confused and kept trying to push Betty away. Another night, Anna began chomping Betty's arm.

“It's very sad. It's not a life to live,” Katie said. “In reality, she's just here. Maybe in some selfish ways, she's here for us.”

Daily life
Most of the conversations between Anna and her caregivers consist of loud commands, such as “Ma, swallow your pills,” “Gram, eat your food,” or “Ma, give me your hands.” Anna usually feeds herself, except when she's not feeling well, and all of her food is pureed by Betty because of Anna's inability to swallow.

At one point, Anna was constantly falling. Now, there is a seat belt on her wheelchair and her toilet, and it is attached whenever Anna is left unattended. About the only time Anna is awake, Betty said, is when one of her caregivers is engaging her in an activity. She'll even close her eyes when she eats, and she would fall asleep on the toilet if Betty left her.

That's not to say Anna can't occupy herself.

In fact, she's always doing something with her hands, whether it's scribbling on crossword puzzles, leafing through a book or playing with cards. The table where she eats is nicked up because she'll pick at it with her silverware. Even when she naps in her recliner, she's constantly fondling the edges of her blanket.

While waiting for Katie to ready her lunch a few weeks ago, Anna was shuffling cards. She methodically turned them over. Partway through, she began to deal them face down, then switched them back to face up. Suddenly, she yelled, “Hey, Skip!” Skip was her brother, and he's been deceased for at least 30 years.

One evening, Anna was looking through a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” meticulously turning the pages, wetting her fingers when the pages would stick. All of a sudden, she shouted out, “Hey, Mary!” There was nobody named Mary in her apartment, and nobody knows who Mary is.

But in a moment of lucidity that very same evening, she was counting the cards as if they were money: 20, 40, 60, 80, $1. The next set: 20, 40, 60, 80, $2. When Katie asked her how many children she had, she held up eight fingers and a thumb.

“I live in the day, in the moment,” said Betty, her voice weary as tears welled in her tired eyes. “I don't want to look into the future. I'm not ready to let her go.”