It was moving day for Dr. Janet Mitchell.
Her sister Blanche Hughes took down the family photos from the wall of Mitchell's room — a portrait of their mother, a photo of their father, a jockey, wearing racing silks and leather riding boots. She asked Mitchell to find her toothbrush and helped take the linens from the bed.
At age 57, Mitchell is not what we typically think of as elderly. She's 4 foot, 10 inches, tiny and trim like her father, with a close-cropped Afro. But at this relatively young age, Mitchell has been stricken with early-onset Alzheimer's, and Hughes has made the wrenching decision to place her in long-term care.
"Never in all my dreams did I ever think that I would have to take care of her," said Hughes. "First of all, she wasn't the type of person you would take care of. She always took care of herself."
In fact, Mitchell had a brilliant career taking care of others. With an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College, a medical degree from Howard University and a master's degree in Public Health from Harvard, she was a leading OB-GYN at Harlem and Lincoln hospitals in New York, specializing in neonatology. She was nationally known as a brilliant gynecological surgeon and a tireless advocate for patients with HIV/AIDS.
Her sister describes her as a "bright, bossy woman who knew what she wanted and went after it."
But now it's the doctor who's in need of care.
On a hot Saturday in June, Hughes hired two men to dismantle the furniture in her sister's room and helped carry her things to the moving truck.
At first, Mitchell was agreeable, helping her sister pack and laughing about childhood memories. But as she went to the garage to get in the car, she broke down. Finally it seemed to dawn on her where she was going, if not exactly why.
When asked whether she knew about Alzheimer's, she said yes. When asked whether she had it, she answered no.
Hughes can't believe she missed so many signs of her sister's illness, but the two lived almost a continent apart: Mitchell lived in New York while Hughes and her husband, Wayne Hughes, raised their children in Colorado.
"She would come home from New York once a year," Hughes said. "She was always working."
But she says that Mitchell was "different" during her last couple of Christmas visits.
"I thought it was depression. She had been through a tough divorce," she said. "Then our daughter Dana, who was really close to Janet and who lives in New York kept saying, 'Something's wrong.'"
"I was buying her food," said Dana Hughes, who's also an associate producer at ABC News. "If I didn't buy her food once a week she wasn't eating." Neighbors and friends say they were shocked that the once meticulous doctor was letting herself and her house go.
At her aunt's house, Dana Hughes found stacks of unopened mail, piles of old and new electronics, and a woman who appeared to be losing her grip on reality. "It showed the slow decay of her state of being," she said.
It all came to a head during a family reunion, when Mitchell became disoriented while driving from New York to Washington, D.C., and had to be rescued on the highway.
"Maybe there was some denial and I thought she would take some medication and be fine," said Blanche Hughes. "I already had to do this once, I shouldn't have to do it again," she says, recounting having to care for her ailing parents, particularly her father, who also had dementia.