The Sister Pact

Three women confronting a family history of dementia make an unusual promise to one another. Will they have the nerve to see it through? 

By Lee Woodruff
illustration of sisters
Photograph: Illustration by Brian Cronin

Lee Woodruff’s latest book, Those We Love Most, is a novel about family secrets.

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Originally published in the February 2013 issue.

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02.15.2013

I nursed my father and mother through Alzheimer's and Lewy-body dementia respectively. If I had someone who could help me bow out gracefully should I not realize that I'd gone past the point where I could recognize the danger, I would be grateful. Sadly, I do not.
If you've not seen this happen to a loved one, you can't begin to know the horror of wondering what your last years will be like.

Laura E. Kelly02.02.2013

I was glad to see this article. The boomers, who so avidly did leg lifts with Jane Fonda, will soon be in this sad situation in droves. We need more open conversation and legal options for dealing with this imminent health crisis, not political debate that gets cut off when someone says the words "death panels."
As for preparing for your own end, I always think of the vivid scene in Lisa Genova's book Still Alice where the ailing Alice writes herself a note designed to test her future cognition, with instructions on what to do if she fails the test. When she eventually fails, she goes to carry out the wishes of her formerly well self, but forgets what she's doing along the way. And ends up lost, as feared, since her family can't/won't help her (despite pacts). A haunting scenario.

Dorothy Walsh01.30.2013

Thank you for this beautiful essay. My sister and I have had this same conversation after our mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about 7 years ago. It has been a strange and desparately sad journey as she has lost more of herself every year. My mother, if she had any cognition, would be mortified to know that this was the way she was spending her last years on earth. The one thing she loved more than anything were her kids, grandkids and great grandkids. She will never know the ones who have yet to be born. My mother was a very even tempered woman but being robbed of the chance to be with the kids would have pissed her off. My fear, of course, is that I will get this disease but I also fear that if I did it would rob me of the ability to decide to drink that cocktail.

Katie 01.30.2013

If she were serious about this pact, she wouldn't have written this article. If one of the sisters commits suicide, the other two will be in jail because here's the plan, laid out completely. It's just a ploy to sell more books by being so bold.

rie LeMer01.29.2013

Thank you More for this brave article. I continue to admire Lee for the life she crafts, for her resilience, smarts and boldness. I appreciate this glimpse of the deep abiding love of siblings and their crucial role in all things joyous and difficult.

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