MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — There are six days to go before Thanksgiving, so Josh Pettit’s Mooresville home isn’t yet adorned with a single Christmas decoration. But it sure looks like Santa’s been here recently.
On the dining table, the 47-year-old web developer has neatly arranged a vast assortment of gifts — everything from T-shirts and handmade blankets to stuffed animal toys and baby dolls — that have recently arrived at a PO box for his mother, Betty Pettit, an Alzheimer’s sufferer.
All of them were sent by complete strangers.
“Lately there’s been an onslaught of gifts,” Josh says, marveling at Betty’s haul even though he’s a significant part of the reason it exists. “The mailbox place, they send me a picture every day of the pile and they say, ‘Your mom’s got more stuff!’”
It’s coming from pretty much everywhere.
“England, Australia, all over the States,” Josh says. His father, Bob (Betty’s husband of 63 years), chimes: “Egypt. UK. Canada.”
“She got a card yesterday and the postmark was North Pole, Alaska,” Josh says, chuckling, “which I didn’t know existed.” He shifts his attention to his mom. “You didn’t know you were that famous, huh?”
Betty’s face takes on an expression that it often does these days when someone talks to her — one of confusion. “Am I?” she replies.
Josh nods. “You’ve got almost a quarter of a million fans on TikTok, and 150,000 people on Facebook,” Josh tells her. “Who knew? Right?” It seems like Betty really wants to understand what he’s talking about, but can’t untangle it. So she just shrugs and says “Yeah, I guess.”
“Right,” Josh assures her. “We never would have thought.”
Her fame was born one Thanksgiving ago, when Josh posted an overnight-sensation of a video on the social-media app TikTok that featured Betty discovering her reflection in the mirror, thinking it was someone else, and striking up a gently amicable conversation with it.
Betty has since maintained status as a modest internet star, in an ongoing series of videos Josh has used to highlight the simple pleasures in her life.
At the same time, Josh says questions occasionally arise about whether it’s suitable for him to be publicizing his mother’s struggle like this. And much more pressingly, her disease — as well as her prognosis — is of course getting worse.
‘THAT WAS DEFINITELY A SAD PROCESS’
“How’s that?” Josh asks his mom, after getting her settled onto the couch between him and his dad in their living room.
“That’s nice,” Betty says, smiling. “Comfy.” Then she turns to him, looks somewhat blankly at him, and says, “Hi.”
“Hi!” he cheerily replies.
Betty pauses and purses her lips. “I’m trying to think who you are.”
“I’m Josh,” he tells her.
Then Bob summarizes how they got to this place:
He and Betty were childhood sweethearts, from a town outside of Buffalo, New York, who met in the fifth grade and started dating in 1955 as teenagers. They had three sons, with Josh the youngest by 13 years. She was a stay-at-home mother, Bob spent his career as a civil engineer.
After Bob retired in 1998, they traveled around the country in a motor home for nine years, then in 2007 started splitting time between Florida and North Carolina — six months at an RV park in The Sunshine State, six months with Josh, who back then was living in the Northlake area.
Maybe 10 years ago, Bob began to notice that Betty had taken to not looking her friends in the eye when she talked to them. She also, he says, “was constantly referring to me for verification of what was being said.” Another sign: He ran the bingo game in the park, and she had always helped him count the money; but she started having trouble counting it.
Then in 2014, Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer, so they decided to move in with Josh permanently for the sake of being able to have consistency in her medical care. In the process of relocating, they found out she had kidney cancer, too. Both cancers were successfully removed via surgery.
(Bob says before those surgeries, she’d also had a hip replacement and a couple of other procedures that required anesthesia; and he points out — as has the National Institutes of Health — that some studies suggest exposure to anesthetics may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.)
From that point, the downward spiral was steady.
There were confounding behaviors, like during a cruise in early 2016, when Bob and Josh struggled to get Betty to stop constantly shuffling or moving around important items in their cabin. But there were also truly frightening events, like at Disneyland in California in February 2017, when she told Bob she was going to the restroom and just plain wandered off, causing the state to issue a Silver Alert.
By roughly the start of the pandemic, Betty’s memory loss and other cognitive difficulties had become all-consuming limiters.
“She’s been a different person for two or three years,” Josh adds. “So that was definitely a sad process, coming to terms with it. And then eventually you reach the point where you have to embrace it.”
BETTY AND THE MIRROR GO VIRAL
It was completely organic.
The Pettits were on vacation last year in the Myrtle Beach area for Thanksgiving, and one of the bedrooms in their rental house had a full-length mirror that Betty happened to discover right before her bedtime. It was clear that Betty thought her reflection was another person. It was also clear Betty was happy to meet this new person. So Josh started recording a video with his phone, he says, because “I thought that that was cute.” “I can’t remember her name,” Betty says as she looks at herself, smiling.
“That’s Betty,” Josh can be heard saying.
“I’m Betty,” she says.
“Well, she’s Betty, too,” Josh replies.
Betty laughs, smiles at herself, high-fives her reflection, and says to it: “OK. Alright. We got that settled. Now I’m gonna get a good night’s sleep. Thank you.”
Josh posted the video on both Facebook and TikTok (along with the caption “Betty Pettit made a new friend at the beach”) on the evening of Nov. 23, 2021.
“I think we woke up to 9,000 views on it,” he recalls. “Which was definitely out of the norm. I couldn’t believe it. Then I kept getting comments, and it just kept growing and growing.” Before he went to bed on the 24th, in another post to Facebook declaring that the video had been viewed a million times, he closed with this kicker: “As we approach Thanksgiving, let’s all be like Betty, and kind to one another.”
After that, Josh recalls, “people wanted more videos. ... ‘We need more Betty! We need more Betty!’”
He posted four additional videos of Betty on the 25th — including another that would eventually go viral, featuring Bob making Betty jump by putting a cold bottle of water on her arm — then four more on the 26th.
And ever since, he’s posted a steady diet of videos starring his mom and their daily lives.
In December 2021, Josh was contacted by a reporter at The Daily Mail in London, which wrote a story about Betty and the mirror video. On Christmas Eve last year, the pastor at their church, West Church in Mooresville, highlighted the video in her sermon. “She never really gets the awareness that it’s her,” Rev. Andrea Smith said, “yet she offers her kindness, and love, and grace.”
Bob and Josh were flabbergasted, at first.
“I couldn’t figure out why people would be interested in it,” Bob says. “But then I guess we began to realize how it was great for awareness.” “Yeah,” Josh says. “we realized we had the opportunity to actually shine a light on this disease that a lot of people deal with but that a lot of other people don’t know about. If you haven’t had first-hand experience, you don’t understand. And people legitimately asked questions, like, ‘Does she really not know that’s herself in the mirror? Is this fake?’”
There was also this one, however: Is this appropriate?
‘A LOT OF LOVE IN THE HOUSE’
Josh says it’s rare, but that he occasionally hears from people who say something to the effect of: You’re exploiting her. She wouldn’t want these videos out there.
Or, when he asks her questions in videos that would otherwise be painfully simple to answer (for example, “How old are you?”: You shouldn’t aggravate her.)
On top of that, after Betty started receiving a trickle of gifts from followers earlier this year, after Josh set up the PO box, after the trickle became a deluge, and after he took to posting videos of her opening the gifts, a few people cautioned him: You need to pace it and not overwhelm her.
“Everybody’s an expert,” Josh says. “But until you’re living it — you know, like, we know what’s best for her, and we know that she’s happy. And all the stuff —” he turns to his mom “— you’ve gotten a big kick out of it. ...
“We had a little stretch last night where we opened a bunch of things and it was like Christmas. She enjoyed it. ‘Ohhhh, this is nice... Who sent that?’ And we just say, ‘It’s one of your fans,’ or ‘one of your friends on the internet.’ And she goes, ‘Wow!’ She enjoys the attention.”
They’d like to keep things that way, but they also know they’re running out of time.
Betty, who turned 85 on Dec. 1, is now in the final stage of her disease. At this point, she needs help dressing herself, cutting up her food, and using the bathroom, among a host of other tasks the rest of us take for granted. She’s fallen in and around the house multiple times in the past year, and while she’s avoided serious injury, her risk for falls remains significant.
At some point sooner rather than later, she likely won’t be able to move around on her own at all, won’t be able to speak or make herself understood, and might have difficulty swallowing food.
“It bothers me certain times,” Bob replies, when asked about the emotional toll he has endured watching his childhood sweetheart go through this. “I think back to the way she was. And —”
He takes a long pause, before adding, simply: “That bothers me.”
What comforts both him and his son, though, is the fact that Betty is at home with them and not in a long-term care facility. They have a caregiver who comes to help out a few days a week to spell Bob, who is otherwise often on his own during the week since Josh has a regular full-time job. But their goal is to keep Betty at home for as long as they possibly can.
And they have an army of Betty fans cheering them on.
“A lot of people praise us for how we respond and make her happy and how we interact with her,” says Josh, who has posted more than 200 TikTok videos of Betty since the mirror one (which currently sits at more than 25 million views). “People will say, ‘This is the role model for how you need to interact with dementia patients.’”
“They say there’s a lot of love in the house, between the three of us,” adds Bob, who with Betty also has a 60-year-old son in the Charlotte area and a 62-year-old son in Charleston.
“And then,” Josh continues, “the example of keeping her home, those are things that other people can aspire towards. Keeping her home, keeping her happy, interacting in fun ways. Sometimes you gotta live in her moment. Those were lessons we had to learn early on — you can say the sky is blue all you want, but if in her world the sky is green, sometimes the sky just needs to be green. ... You enter into her world, and live in it.”
Bob nods his head.
“There’s a lot of people out there,” he says, “that are not as fortunate as Betty and I being able to live with Josh, and keep her here. Other people have told us, ‘We had to put Mom in a home, and I live a hundred miles away.’ ... So we’re very fortunate in being able to live here with Josh — and hopefully, we can stay here till the end.”
Josh nods back, looks at his mom and smiles.
“I’m glad you live here,” he says to her. “Are you glad you live here?”
“Mm-hmm,” Betty replies. “Oh good,” Josh says. Betty pauses for a beat, then asks him: “Do I have a choice?”
“Probably not,” Josh says, and they both start laughing. “I think you’re stuck here.”