With her mother slipping deeper into dementia and no longer able to recognize her, 27-year-old Steph Gefroh and her fiance sprang into action.
In April, my boyfriend of two years proposed while we were vacationing in Italy. I said yes. I’d never had a relationship so fun, yet so effortless. Bryan is compassionate, caring, and makes me laugh every day.
I returned home to Plymouth, Minnesota, where I work as an accountant, and began excitedly planning a wedding for May 2018. My thought was that we could hold the ceremony in a Minnesota town halfway between my family's hometown and Bryan’s. But when I called my sister, Amber, to discuss it with her, she hesitated.
“Steph,” she said. “You’re not going to be able to get Mom there.”
As soon as she said it, I knew my sister was right.
My parents divorced when I was 14, and my sister and I lived with my mom. But in 2008, the summer before I left for college, I started noticing signs that something wasn’t quite right with her.
My mom would walk into a room, look confused, then walk back out, saying nothing at all. During phone conversations, she paused for long periods of time. More often than not, I’d be nearby and know what story she was telling, so I’d fill in the blanks by shouting to her from the living room. When I came home after spending time with friends, she’d ask me what I did, then ask me again the next morning.
Every doctor my mom saw thought that she was depressed, stressed, or menopausal. It took almost four years for us to get an official diagnosis: my mom had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
I was in shock when I found out. I thought Alzheimer's only affected old people. At the time, my mom was just 48. She ran an in-home daycare, cross-stitched, and created stained glass windows. She was loving and caring. But according to the Alzheimer's Association, up to 5% of the 5 million people who have the disease in the U.S. develop it before they turn 65.
Amber and I watched her lose her speech and her ability to write. Eventually, she became entirely dependent on others. I’ve had to shower my mom, feed and dress her, and even change her diaper. The last conversation we had was five years ago. For the past two years, my mom hasn’t known who I am.
The day she turned, looked at me, and kept walking broke my heart. I would give anything to hear my mom tell me again that she loves me, but that’s no longer an option.
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I miss the mother I grew up with every single day. I wanted her to be at my wedding. But, as Amber pointed out during our phone call, Mom was having trouble just getting around Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, the town where she lived. The idea of her being driven nearly four hours away to an unfamiliar town a year from now seemed impossible.
“If you want Mom to see you get married,” Amber told me, “you should do it in Devil’s Lake.”
Bryan and I were were headed there to visit her in less than a month, so I asked him, “Should we just do it then?” He instantly agreed.
Wedding planning overdrive
Planning a ceremony in 25 days was surprisingly easy, thanks to our amazing group of friends and supportive families. Amber and my brother-in-law trimmed trees and replanted flower gardens in my mom’s backyard, where we’d decided to hold the ceremony. My aunts, grandmothers, cousins and friends made the food, ordered the cake, and helped with decorations.
One talented friend put together all the flower arrangements, while another, who’s an event planner, scored us table linens and chair covers at a discount. Bryan’s mother and stepdad brought champagne and my dad bought a keg. Our mutual friend, Ray, who introduced Bryan and me to each other at a whirlyball game, even got ordained online so he could perform our ceremony. And I found a wedding dress in a consignment shop.
On May 27, exactly one year before our original wedding date, Bryan and I were married in my mother's yard. I’ll never forget hearing Bryan recite his wedding vows—and I was so grateful to be able to share the day with Mom, even if she didn’t understand what was happening. Two weeks later, with her ability to function independently so diminished, we had to move her into a memory-care facility.
As the story of our sped-up wedding has gotten out, I’ve had people reach out to me from around the country, telling me similar stories of their loved ones with Alzheimer's and thanking me for sharing mine. It made me realize how fortunate I am to have an amazing support system—not just Bryan and my family and friends, but also a local group in Minneapolis called Alzheimer’s Association Young Champions.
Not everyone is so lucky, so I decided to start a Facebook support group: Young Advocates: Children of Young Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. After just two weeks, we had 100 members. Everyone needs someone to talk to who knows exactly what they’re going through with this illness.
At the time of my mom’s diagnosis, doctors told us she had only 10 years left to live. That was almost a decade ago. Although Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently, we’re unsure how much time we have left with her. But thankfully I can look back at pictures and videos of my wedding day and see that Mom was there with me.
If you or a loved one have been affected by Alzheimer’s, contact the Alzheimer’s Association through their 24/7 Helpline (800.272.3900) or at alz.org.