A CT woman’s mom ‘froze to death’. She’s determined to help others avoid that tragedy.

In Feb of 2019 Miriam Braga ran out for 15 minutes to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her 86-year-old mother and when Miriam returned the front door was wide open, all the lights in the house were on and her mom, Mary, who had Alzheimer’s Disease was nowhere to be found.

A frantic Miriam Braga walked the street calling for her mom, neighbors joined the search and the police brought in bloodhounds, but Mary Braga was nowhere to be found.

“The hours seemed like an eternity,” Miriam Braga said. It was February and the coldest day of the year.

Tragically, the next day Mary Braga was found “frozen to death” in a nearby yard.

Mary Braga had “wandered” for the first time ever — a symptom of the disease in late stages.

Miriam Braga is still dealing with the regrets, guilt, but has turned her pain and energy to educating others about the disease so they can avoid such a tragedy.

“You feel responsible, then there’s that huge wave of guilt. She must have been scared, did she suffer? did she go quickly?,” Miriam Braga said. “I still trying to deal with these things.”

Since her mother’s death, Miriam Braga has poured herself into volunteerism with the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut Chapter.

She teaches education classes, including in Spanish, she holds fundraisers – raising $5,000 through a Drag brunch and is active in the Greater Hartford Walk to End Alzheimer’s, set this year for October 28.

Braga has been chosen to hold the purple flower in the promise garden ceremony on the day of the walk at Rentschler Field.

Purple is held by those who have lost someone to Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, yellow is held by present caregivers, orange represents a supporter of the cause, and the blue flower by someone who is currently living with dementia.

Miriam Braga was chosen for the purple flower honor because she’s “such a positive light, turning her pain into helping others,” a spokeswoman for the association said.

“I want to be a part of this to help others,” Miriam Braga said of the organization. “I didn’t want people to go through what my family went through.”

According to statistics, 80,000 people in Connecticut are living with Alzheimer’s and six in 10 people with dementia will wander.

Most people who have this disease live at home, not in a facility, the statistics note.

Miriam’s journey with Mary Braga’s Alzheimer’s was like what many others have experienced.

Mary Braga, emigrated here from Argentina in 1965, with her husband and settled in New Britain.

Miriam Braga describes her mom pre-Alzheimer’s as “energetic, on the ball, could recall things in incredible detail.” Mom was “always helping people” and had a sharp wit, the younger Braga said.

In 2017 the family noticed she was becoming forgetful and often misplacing items like her keys and purse.

Mary Braga’s primary doctor attributed the behavior to aging and said it natural to become forgetful, Miriam Braga said.

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But Mary Braga grew progressively worse, her daughter said. She often lost her place in conversation, would repeat herself every five minutes and become defensive about criticism and eventually, she became paranoid. Mary Braga also talked about conversations with her late husband as if they were current. Mary had no interest in seeing friends or doing other activities.

“It was like a roller coaster with her,” Miriam Braga said.

In 2018, the family saw a huge red flag when Mary put her slippers in the refrigerator.

Miriam, no longer accepting the doctor’s explanation of natural aging, brought Mary to the University of Connecticut geriatric department for an evaluation based on answering about a dozen questions.

Mary Braga said mom failed the test and was diagnosed with late stage Alzheimer’s Disease.

Mary Braga said “as naive” as it sounds she didn’t know anything about Alzheimer’s Disease, except for catching glimpses in television commercials

Her mother was put on medication to slow the memory loss, but unbeknownst to the family at some point started spitting the pills out when they turned their heads.

Assisted living was out of the question, so Miriam Braga signed up for caregiver education through the Alzheimer’s Association.

In those classes she was shocked to see some people with feelings of resentment and guilt over those feelings of resentment, just as she had experienced, she said.

“I met people who felt the way I did. It didn’t mean I didn’t love my mother,” she said.

Mary Braga continued to worsen. She would hallucinate at night, believing there were birds in the room and Mary’s grandson would have to go in her room and pretend to kill them.

Sleeping became a major issue for Mary Braga, so Miriam got a prescription for medication.

That’s the prescription she was picking up the day mom walked out of the house and perished. It was the first time Mary Braga had done anything like that so Miriam thought nothing of running out for 15 minutes and leaving her alone.

Carolyn DeRocco, vice president of programs and education at the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut Chapter said they want to help people recognize the warning signs of wandering and put safety precautions in place.

“The Alzheimer’s Association is here to help caregiver identify triggers that may increase the risk of wandering,” she said.

“We want caregivers to know that they can all the Alzheimer’s Association and have critical conversations about the signs of wandering,” she said. “If someone is looking for their car and they haven’t driven in a while or talking about their old job or looking for their mother, there are ways we can help caregivers recognize clues to identify people are at risk.”

DeRocco said people can wander not only on foot, but on a train or a bus.

When Miriam Braga returned from that quick trip to the pharmacy she couldn’t find mom.

“I went through the neighborhood calling her name,” Miriam Braga said.

After Mary Braga was found her the next morning, authorities told Miriam Braga mother had fallen into a ravine because of the snow, hit her head and died of “hypothermia.”

It takes a moment to process the word “hypothermia,” Miriam Braga said, so for presentations she says her mom, “froze to death.” It gets their attention and that’s what she wants so people are vigilant.

“If you’re a caregiver the story helps you see what the consequences can be,” she said. “I was in that comfort zone,” thinking mom wouldn’t ever leave the house on her own or “wander” as its known.

She tells those who attend her sessions, ” I don’t want this to happen to you.”

“When it all happened I started to think about all the people taking care of someone who might not know of these dangers,” said Miriam who peppers herself with “should haves,” all the time.

Leading the educational classes is fulfilling.

“In these classes it’s unbelievable to see the light bulb go off,” she said. “If you’re a caregiver the story helps you see what the consequences can be.”

It’s important, she said, for people to learn about the 10 early warning signs of Alzheimer’s and to question doctors if they believe an assessment is incorrect.

She said Alzheimer’s is different than “just forgetting something.” It’s normal to forget where you put keys and to retrace steps to find them. With Alzheimer’s, the person cannot retrace their steps, she said.

People with concerns should feel free to question a doctor rather than just accept what they say, as she did, Miriam Braga said.

“Don’t be afraid to question or get another opinion,” she said.

Even though mom isn’t here, Miriam Braga said she likes to give her mom credit for educating people through her death.

“She’s still helping other people even though she’s not here,” Miriam Braga said. “All I can do is move forward and hope that it doesn’t happen to someone else.”