A mother forgets, a daughter remembers

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

Danette Dooley danette@nl.rogers.com
Published on May 28, 2011
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.