Anna's personality, behavior as different as night and day

Betty Brooks cries as the van driver prepares to leave for Donnell House in Washington, where Betty's mother, Anna Snatchko, spent two days in respite care. Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
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Anna Snatchko is going today to the Donnell House in Washington, a hospice-care facility operated by Washington Health System.

It will be Anna's second overnight stay this month. The first visit lasted two days; this visit will last three days.

Betty Brooks waits with her mother for the van outside of Burgettstown Apartments. Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Anna is not dying, as her daughter, Betty Brooks, poignantly pointed out on Facebook when friends began to offer their heartfelt sympathy and prayers after Betty expressed her sadness upon leaving Anna's room – and the Donnell House – in early July.

But Anna, 86, does have stage IV dementia, and she requires 24-hour care. She is going to the Donnell House for respite care, a short-term stay that will give Betty, who is Anna's primary caregiver, a well-deserved break.

“I really don't want to do this,” Betty said before Anna's first trip to the Donnell House.

Her reluctance was understandable. Anna was in respite care twice before at other facilities following hospitalizations that required additional medical supervision. Betty was not satisfied either time, insisting her mother did not receive the type of care that Betty and other family members provide to her daily. Plus, Anna is at her best when her routine is not interrupted.

However, Betty had no choice. Her husband, Gary, was having cataract surgery July 8, and she needed to be with him during the day and throughout the night at their McDonald home. Her daughter, Katie Fehl, with whom Betty shares the daytime care of Anna, has four children and another part-time job. She couldn't take her mother's nighttime shift at Anna's Burgettstown apartment.

Betty Brooks folds laundry while she and her mother, Anna Snatchko, wait for the van to transport her mother to Donnell House. Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Today's trip to the Donnell House, though, is solely for Betty's sake. She is taking her two daughters and grandchildren on a mini-vacation.

Anna seemed to be adjusting well to her new surroundings during my first visit with her at the Donnell House. She practically saluted me when I walked into the room, acknowledging me with a straight-armed welcome and a wide grin.

She also was quite spunky, talking nonstop during our hourlong visit. She regaled me with one elaborate story about taking an airplane trip from Pittsburgh to New York. While waiting for her flight, she said she noticed a good-looking guy. She hoped he was on her flight so she could flirt with him. He was, but Anna is not the type of woman, at least in this instance, to kiss and tell, saying only that her family would be surprised when she told them.

Anna kept mentioning her late husband, George, as well, and how he was trying to convince the couple's seven sons to visit the doctor. She periodically gazed at the walls and ceiling, and once blurted out, “What the hell is that?” I explained that it was a sprinkler.

When I left, we were both in good spirits.

The next day, however, Anna was nowhere near as spry, and, quite frankly, I was rather frightened by her appearance and behavior when I arrived at 8 p.m.

She was leaning on her right side in bed, clutching the bed rail with one hand and the other shaking uncontrollably. She stared vacantly at the wall, and was mumbling incoherently. Before long, she began tugging at her hospital gown, nearly exposing her bosom.

Then it hit me: Anna was sundowning, a syndrome that often affects people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. When the sun sets, they become agitated and confused. Sometimes, it even affects their sleep patterns throughout the night.

Betty had warned me about this not long after I first met Anna in February. With the exception of one brief nighttime visit with Anna, all of my visits had been during the day, so I never witnessed this side of Anna.

The fact she had removed her oxygen a few hours before my arrival also may have been a contributing factor to her mood swing. Betty had warned me about that as well.

Shortly before 9 o'clock, the nurse came in to give Anna her medicine. Before leaving the room, the nurse closed the curtains. What a difference it made.

Anna's mood slowly started to change. The shakiness wasn't as pronounced, and her words were much clearer. Again, she started talking about George.

After my customary kiss on her baby-smooth forehead and the swapping of “I love you's,” I gathered my belongings and turned back to say goodbye. When I did, Anna was waving to me with an unsteady hand. I took her hand, rubbed it, and then gently kissed it before placing it on her bed.

I had barely moved before Anna reached for my hand, squeezed it, pulled it up to her lips and kissed it. She was smiling as I walked out the door.