'I'm lovin' you': Woman with Alzheimer's connects with daughter in viral video

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By Chris Serico

Imagine the frustration and sadness of talking with a father or mother who doesn’t remember who you are. Then imagine, for a brief moment, that parent calls you by name.

That’s what happens to Georgia resident Kelly Gunderson, who says her 87-year-old mother, Daphne Tresher, has Alzheimer’s disease but “knew who I was, even if just for a moment,” in a YouTube video that’s gone viral this week. Posted Friday, the video has more than 1.6 million views as of Tuesday.

Gunderson told TODAY.com she’d been taping videos of her with her mother prior to last week, but hadn’t documented a connection quite like this one.

“I had been taping her, just asking her questions or singing, ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” Gunderson said. “That morning, I was just lying in bed with her, and we were just talking, and I decided to do a selfie video.”

About 40 seconds into the 90-second video of the two lying in bed, Gunderson asks if her mother recognizes her.

“Kelly,” her mother says, prompting a stunned Gunderson to lift her head from her pillow.

“Yes, Mama!” Gunderson says. “Yes, I am Kelly.”

“Well, I love Kelly,” Tresher says. “And didn’t I name you Kelly?”

“Yes, you did!” replies Gunderson, leading to a shared laugh.

“Well, I love you, Kelly,” her mother says.

“I love you, Mama,” Gunderson adds.

Later in the video, Gunderson asks her mother what she’s thinking about.

“Well, I’m lovin’ you,” Tresher says.

“I’m lovin’ you, too, Mama,” Gunderson replies.

“Oh, well, we’re both doin’ the same thing, aren’t we?” Tresher adds.

A hair stylist and married mother of two who lives in Georgia’s Glynn County, Gunderson told TODAY.com she didn’t anticipate this kind of reaction when she hit record last week.

“I never know what I’m going to get when I’m talking with her,” Gunderson said. “I was just enjoying it. And then, when she said my name — and I have an identical twin sister — so, when she said ‘Kelly,’ it just caught me off guard.”

Gunderson said she believes the video has become popular “because people relate to it,” adding, “I think that people see that it’s a moment of clarity.”

Two Alzheimer’s experts — author Lisa Genova and Alzheimer’s Association spokeswoman Ruth Drew — told TODAY.com they were moved by the video.

In addition to having a late grandmother who lived with Alzheimer’s, Genova holds a doctoral degree in neuroscience from Harvard University, and is the author of the best-selling novel “Still Alice,” whose protagonist is diagnosed with the disease at age 50; the book’s movie adaptation, starring Julianne Moore, premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday.

Genova said she wasn’t surprised by the video, but contends that doesn’t make it any less moving or significant.

“Both women were 100 percent present, so, no one was trying to remember the past or worrying what they were going to do tomorrow,” Genova said of the video. “They were experiencing ... what I know my grandmother experienced: Even though Alzheimer’s is robbing you of the ability to remember your personal history, and to understand much of what’s going on, as a human being, you’re still capable of understanding love. And you can feel that love and give it back; it’s mutual. People with Alzheimer’s still have something to give us. They’re not empty shells.”

Drew, the Alzheimer’s Association’s director of family and information services, has worked with the nonprofit for more than a decade. She also can speak from personal experience, as her late grandfather had the disease.

“I think this kind of thing happens more than we might imagine,” Drew said. “When we meet someone, in the later stage of Alzheimer’s, who isn’t able to talk very much and doesn’t recognize family members, it may seem [like,] ‘Well, they’re just not even there.’ But what those of us who have worked with these folks for a long time know is the person still is there; it’s just that they have a very damaged brain, and often times it’s very difficult to connect. But there are still ways to connect. Sometimes, there are these magical moments of clarity and connection.”

While not every Alzheimer’s patient will exhibit moments of clarity, Genova says the ones who have the best shot may find a way when they’re relaxed, adding they shouldn’t feel like they’re being interrogated.

“Don’t try to accomplish anything other than connecting emotionally,” she added. “You’ll probably have a lot of moments that feel mutual and reciprocal and meaningful. [Gunderson’s] mom recognized the love before she recognized her daughter’s name.”

Since these uplifting moments can be rare, Drew cited the Alzheimer’s Association’s website and 24-hour help line for people in need.

Gunderson said she’s had to change the way she’s seen and interacted with her mother, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2003.

“In the early stages, [people with Alzheimer’s] repeat themselves, over and over again, and they’ve got that short-term memory where they don’t remember your conversation that you just had,” she added. “It’s a little aggravating because you don’t realize [they have the disease]. Then when you realize it, and in the late stage, that’s the new normal, and you just deal with it. Love them anyway, and love them through it.”

Follow TODAY.com writer Chris Serico on Twitter.