A mother forgets, a daughter remembers

Danette Dooley
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Shannie Duff recalls her mother’s poignant struggle with Alzheimer’s

Shannie Duff with a photo of her mother Helena (McGrath) Frecker taken in 1930 when she graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Toronto. — Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

Shannie Duff has dozens of black-and-white photographs of her mother Helena Frecker — a vibrant woman who excelled academically.

It’s the memories of her mother that aren’t captured on film that almost bring the deputy mayor of St. John’s to tears.

Her mother had Alzheimer’s disease for about seven years before she died, and Duff and her siblings watched as the disease robbed their mother of her spirit and — in time — her ability to recognize her children and grandchildren.

Duff recalls a particularly difficult time when her mother was certain that Duff was the mother and she was the child.

“I’d go over to her house and she’d want me to play children’s games. I played Ring Around the Rosie with her and we did the ‘all fall down!’

“I actually lost it. I’m almost losing it, now, just telling you about it.”


Helena McGrath was born on the island of Oderin in Placentia Bay in 1906.

Archivist Bert Riggs wrote in a July 26, 2004 column in The Telegram that Frecker was nine when her family moved to St. John’s.

She became the first graduate of Memorial University College in 1926 and spent the next four years at St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree and a master’s degree.

In 1930 she returned to St. John’s and began teaching at Memorial University College.

She married Alain Frecker in 1933 and their first child was born the following year.

Duff says her mother stayed home for the next 25 years, and raised eight children.

“She spoke French a lot with my father,” she recalls. “That was their secret language.”

During the war years, Duff said her mother became an expert at “turning things into other things.”

“She’d turn my father’s shirts into smock dresses for us. She’d unravel things she’d knit after we outgrew them and would knit something else.”

After her children were raised, Frecker returned to Memorial University College to teach English in 1958.

She received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Memorial University in 1974 and retired in 1975. Her husband died four years later.

By around 1985, Duff and her siblings were noticing changes in their mother’s behaviour.

Frecker loved picking berries, but when she was taken on one excursion, she started pulling up the bushes instead of picking  berries.

If she was given a small task to do, like setting the table, she’d just stand there with a fork and knife in her hand, not knowing what to do, Duff said.

Frecker used to grow vegetables, but she reached a point when she didn’t know what to do with them. Duff said her mother once peeled a potato but forgot to stop once the peel was all gone. 

“She peeled it down to nothing,” she said.

It was particularly difficult for the family when Frecker knew she was losing her mind.

“There were times when she’d break down and say, ‘I can’t do anything. I’m useless.’ She’d put her head in her arms and cry.”

As the disease progressed, Frecker became restless and angry if anyone tried to keep her from leaving her house in St. John’s.

On one occasion, Duff said, her mother was found by a friend on the corner of Forest Road and King’s Bridge Road.

“She looked like a deer in the headlights, totally mesmerized by the traffic.”

During her final years, family members and caregivers stayed with Frecker to keep her safe.

Duff said her family was fortunate enough to have been able to afford to give their mother the care she needed.

Anyone caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s desperately needs breaks, she said, but not everyone has the means to pay for respite care.

Frecker moved into St. Patrick’s Mercy Home several months before she died. By that time she’d developed bowel cancer and needed more care than she could get at home.

She died on Oct. 24, 1993, at the age of 87.

Over the next decade, her four siblings also developed Alzheimer’s and died.

Duff said while her mother got to the point where she didn’t recognize her children, she did remember words to songs she’d learned as a child.

Weeks before she died, Duff and her daughter, Stephanie, visited her at St. Pat’s.

With several other residents in the room, Stephanie sat on the floor and played Frecker’s favourite song, “Danny Boy” on guitar.

Before long, mother, daughter and granddaughter were all singing.

For a few minutes, at least, everything was OK.


Duff is doing the Alzheimer Society’s Walk for Memories on Sunday at 2 p.m., at Kenny’s Pond in St. John’s.

The fundraiser encourages people living with dementia to take part, as well as their families and friends.

Shirley Lucas, executive director of the Alzheimer Society, said the walk illustrates the value of staying active and being social — two factors that help protect against Alzheimer’s.


Organizations: University College, University of Toronto, Alzheimer Society Mercy Home

Geographic location: Island of Oderin, Placentia Bay, Michael Forest Road Bridge Road

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Recent comments

  • Jill
    April 10, 2015 - 03:10

    I have just recently come across a service which allows you to fill out or edit PDF forms online without having to download any software. I was able to print out my document and even fax it online. I'm sure you will definitely find the service useful and easy to use.

  • Allan Russell
    May 30, 2011 - 07:55

    I know only too well the anquish felt by Shannie. Both of my parents had Alzheimers. My father died in 1999, my Mom died last week. It is very hard for the family to deal with. I really appreciate the article, it is a disease that takes away a persons dignity. Thanks to Shannie and the Telegram for bringing awareness of this dreaded disease.

  • George Penney
    May 29, 2011 - 20:59

    Ms Duff, thank you for sharing that private part of your life. Your mother was a great lady who contributed much to the betterment of humanity. She touched so many lives in a positive way. We can only hope that someday science will find a workable solution to the curse of dimentia. Meanwhile, we have to be prepared to deal with and sacrifice for loved ones who are thus affected. Love and compassion have to be our guides to bringing what comfort is possible to the afflicted.

  • Maureen
    May 29, 2011 - 12:27

    What a beautiful tribute to your Mother. I have many wonderful memories of visits at your family home. Your Mother was always ready to have another face at the table.It is sad that she was robbed of her brilliant mind. May she rest in peace.

  • Ross Senior
    May 29, 2011 - 09:26

    A very touching story. Thanks for sharing it. I am very scared and upset. I am 64 and my darling wife, Ella, was just last week diagnosed to be in the early stages of the disease. She is only 62. I would greatly appreciate any advice you have to give me.

  • robert tucker
    May 28, 2011 - 13:57

    Very, very touching story! My wife and I and our adult boys and our granddaughters are very fortunate that our mothers, (grandmothers and great grandmothers), who are both 85 nand 84 yrs old, respectively, are in good health. When one's love one has Alzhelmer's, all one can do really is to be there for them and be thankful for the memories that hey have of them before the love one got the disease. All the best Shammie!

  • Starr
    May 28, 2011 - 09:58

    Very touching story, Shannie. May God bless you for sharing it.

    • Mildred
      May 28, 2011 - 16:18

      It is a very touching story and brings back memories of our dad who passed away a few years back from Alzheimer. He reached a stage where he did not know any of his children, not even our Mom. He was such a kind and gentle man whose last years on this earth were so difficult for all of us. Thank you Shannie for sharing your story with us. There were a few tears shed today after reading your story. Take care of yourself and God bless!

  • Reg
    May 28, 2011 - 08:28

    Shannie, I remember your Mom as a very classy lady. I hear your pain and know that mixed with it are some very beautiful, wonderful happy memories as well. Thinking of you.

  • Gwendolyn
    May 28, 2011 - 08:01

    What a beautiful story.So heart breaking So true

    • Patrick Collins
      May 28, 2011 - 08:46

      This story resonates with me since my mother, a very active person as well, experienced the end of her days in a similar manner. She reverted back to her childhood asa result of Alzheimer's, and all that remained was all that we needed ,"love". Dementia is very frightening for those who are trying to cope with someone who has it. That person was usually the one who was there for us. We then lose that support and realize it is they who need our support. Ms. Duff's story brougt back memories of of our mom's last years, but she also reminded me of what it takes to give back to those who gave so much.

    • Mary E. Whalen
      May 28, 2011 - 10:58

      Sad,but very well written.brought Me to tears. Great job, as usual Danette.