7/5/2023 | By Thomas Goodwin Smith

WESTMINSTER, Md. — During the early days of the pandemic, Julie Peatt Cassaday took an active role in caregiving for her mother, who suffered from dementia. Her experiences inspired the book, “Dear Sweet Mama.” The author read from and signed her book at Brightview Westminster Ridge, the facility where her mother spent the last months of her life.

“For folks living with dementia, especially those who were in units where family could not get to them, COVID was a real downward spiral for so many of them,” Peatt Cassaday, 59, of Westminster, said. “Deaths among people with dementia [have] increased during the time of COVID.”

The book documents her mother’s move from the Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville, Maryland, to Brightview Westminster Ridge in Westminster on April 1, 2020. Brightview discontinued new move-ins two days later.

The decision to move was a matter of visitation, Peatt Cassaday said. While Brightview allowed limited visitation under strict pandemic protocols, Fairhaven closed its doors to visitors on March 13, which threatened to make existence unbearable for Peatt Cassaday’s mother.

Fairhaven objected to the move at first, for fear of spreading COVID-19, Peatt Cassaday said, but relented under the condition that staff be the ones to move her mother’s belongings out of her former home.

After spending years cultivating relationships with Fairhaven caretakers, the departure felt unceremonious, Peatt Cassaday said.

Older woman and daughter can only meet through a window during the pandemic. Photo by Piksel.

“In complete frustration I decided to write her a letter,” Peatt Cassaday said, “which was kind of ridiculous because she had dementia. So instead of sending her the letter, which she would never read, I decided to post on Facebook, and it just started a chain.”

Peatt Cassaday’s first letter, addressed “Dear Sweet Mama,” was posted on March 26, 2020, and was met with an outpouring of support from friends and associates who were going through similar challenges. She said that post started her down the path of writing a book, even if she didn’t know it yet.

The book, “Dear Sweet Mama,” is a compilation of social media posts in the form of letters to her mother, with other information added to bring the story together.

The book documents the heart-wrenching experience of seeing a loved one through the end of their life, compounded with the hardships of the pandemic. Peatt Cassaday writes about moments when her mother is lucid, which convey the depth of love among family members. Smith died on Dec. 28, 2020.

The author is one of three siblings, including Wendy Phillips of Pikesville, Maryland, all of whom helped take care of their mother.

“The hardest part was the last week of her life, when she transitioned,” Phillips said, fighting back tears. “That was the hardest part because she finally stopped talking.”

Advice on caregiving from the author of ‘Dear Sweet Mama’

Taking care of a loved one can be emotionally draining, and Peatt Cassaday told the book signing audience to make sure they take care of themselves first.

“Caregiving is not for the faint of heart, and it’s a labor of love,” Peatt Cassaday said. “On the days when you feel like you’re losing your mind – you might be – but ask for help and give yourself the day off. That’s what I’ve learned.”

Related: Self-care and caregiving

The family has had plenty of time to learn that lesson, she said, as they realized their mother had dementia soon after she lost her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Josie Hawk, a medical technician responsible in part for Peatt Cassaday’s mother’s care, said “Dear Sweet Mama” is an important and eye-opening book for her because it offers a family’s perspective on taking care of a loved one.

“It was crazy during [the early days of] COVID,” Hawk said. “It was a really hard experience for the families and for us, and it was a lot of trial and error, so it was really nice to get the family’s perspective because we have the caregiver perspective. Her book was a really beautiful way of us being able to see that, because we didn’t get to experience what the families were feeling.”

Cindy Martin Sharkey, with BrightView Senior Living, talks with Julie Peatt Cassaday, author of “Dear Sweet Mama,” during a book signing at Brightview Westminster Ridge, Maryland on Tuesday June 13, 2023. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Hawk said she spent most of 2020 on autopilot and reading “Dear Sweet Mama” was a welcome outlet to reflect upon that time.

Brightview Westminster Ridge Wellspring Village director Andi Walsh, who helped organize the book signing, said she plans to coordinate future events with Peatt Cassaday.

“The goal is to reach as many people as we can and let them know that they’re not alone if they’re a caregiver,” Walsh said.

Peatt Cassaday, 59, of Westminster, is the owner of Tanglewood, a company through which she provides life coaching and corporate mental health, mindfulness and communication training.

“My intention for putting the book out there was absolutely to help caregivers understand that they are never alone,” Peatt Cassaday said, “and that they have a tribe around them.”

Related: Keeping a loved one with dementia engaged

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FEATURE IMAGE: The book ‘Dear Sweet Mama: Caregiving for a loved one during the Covid 19 Pandemic’ (left), written by daughter Julie Peatt Cassaday about Ninita Smith, seen in a photo as she isolates in elder care, rests on display during a book signing at Brightview Senior Living in Westminster Ridge, Maryland on Tuesday June 13, 2023. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

SECOND IMAGE: Dreamtime stock photo, by Piksel

THIRD IMAGE: Cindy Martin Sharkey, with BrightView Senior Living, talks with Julie Peatt Cassaday, author of “Dear Sweet Mama,” during a book signing at Brightview Westminster Ridge, Maryland on Tuesday June 13, 2023. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Thomas Goodwin Smith