Dina Parise is an Atlanta-based professional drag racer and former professional figure skater for the Ice Capades.
She named her race car Stella after her grandmother who suffered from dementia. Who better than this adrenaline junkie to understand how to minimize risk?
This is her story.
Dina Parise has an incredible career. This 54 year old dynamo drives a car that goes up to 245 mph and she honors her grandmother by naming her car Stella. Keep reading and get to know both Dina and Stella and get marveled by their fortitude, passion, and loving-nature.
Dina Parise Tells us about the Ice Capades
The Ice Capades was a professional skating show, now defunct. This variety show on ice filled with glitz and glamour was around for over 50 years.
I got to work with some amazing people like Dorothy Hamill. And I even worked with Tonya Harding. Scott Hamilton, Elizabeth Manley, an Olympic champion from Canada. I’m still friends with some of them to this day. And I’m hoping to get to the reunion next year.
The men and women still look fabulous to this day, some of them in their 70s and 80s. And they still look like they could step out on the ice and do it all over again.
People confuse the Ice Capades with Disney on Ice. But Disney caters to children with characters. Although the Ice Capades appealed to the entire family, it was a different type of show.
They called it variety because we had big production numbers with a whole ensemble, chorus, kick lines and big sparkly costumes. But we also had different kinds of variety numbers where we had solo skaters or the pair skaters. We had a comedy number and a kiddie’s number, which would go from the Flintstones to the Smurfs, California Raisins, the Mario Brothers, depending on how far back it went.
I performed at Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum and the forum in L.A., amongst other famous venues.
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What Made you Change to Drag Racing?
My husband was a drag racer and he built a car. I always loved racing, but I had never been to a drag race. And I fell in love with the sport when I went with him to the track for the very first time.
About six months later, I went to the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School. I was in my 30s. I stepped into a race car and I never looked back.
The very first car I drove went high 8 seconds to low 9 seconds in the quarter mile at like 150 mph. That means, the car did 150 miles in less than 9 seconds in a quarter mile. The car runs so you can do a quarter mile in less than 9 seconds.
The car that I drive now will run the quarter mile in less than 6 seconds. So high 5 seconds, like 5.9 seconds and about 245 mph.
So I always wonder what is she thinking up there? I don’t think she ever wanted to drive a car as she lived in the Bronx, so she walked everywhere.
Are You Afraid of the Genetic Aspect of Age-Related Brain Disease?
Yeah. Oh, yeah. I try to keep very active. I try to eat well. I exercise. I try to keep my brain active as well as I can.
I try to keep socially connected as much as possible. I think people miss the social part. There’s a lot to be said for that. And I know it’s been hard the last year, and I’m in Georgia, so we’re kind of a little bit more open, but just do it. Even if you’re having to do it virtually, do it.
What’s your Advice for People to Minimize Risk of Dementia?
You are never too young to start taking care of yourself. It’s an unknown. And I know risk more than most. So, here’s how I’m going to explain risk.
I find racers all the time that don’t wear gloves or they don’t wear this piece of equipment, or that piece of equipment.
And I always tell them: it’s not if, but when. Be prepared, be proactive, don’t have a knee jerk reaction, because by then it’s too late.
I put all the safety equipment on that I can, even a little extra. Because it can’t hurt. It’s the same principle. I do whatever I can to minimize the risk.
In the grand scheme of things this might be an oxymoron, considering I drive a car that goes 245 mph. I get it. I understand that I am taking the biggest risk. But I also am keeping my brain super-duper active by driving a car that goes 245 mph.
And I am taking all the measures that I can in order not to have to run into that risk. Because risk is risk. You may have 20% risk and it happens to you. You may have 90% risk and it never happens to you. Risk is risk, once you get it is 100%.
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My Grandmother’s Story: How Stella was Really Marie
My grandma’s real name was Marie. My middle name is Marie. In my 30s, I was getting a divorce from my first husband when my grandma was going through her dementia. And we had moved her out of her apartment.
We were cleaning her apartment when I found an autographed book from her eighth grade, and it said Marie. Who’s Marie? My mother replied, “that’s your grandmother”. Why did they call her Stella? Nobody knew.
As she was in the throes of dementia, she had stopped speaking by that point so I couldn’t get the story out of anybody. I was so disappointed.
Did your Family Come From Italy?
I don’t know where in the States my grandmother was born. Somebody came from Italy, probably her parents. I know my dad’s side of the family. My mom never really talked about her side. One of Stella’s sisters is still alive. She’s about a hundred and fifty, I guess. I’m kidding. My aunt is still alive and she’s up there.
My grandma had three sisters, Millie, Anne, and Frances, like my mother. Millie was a pip. We loved Millie. She’d always say “aunt Millie, how do you look so young?” She’d go, “Oh, I wear a wig.” It was so cute.
My family lived in the Bronx. On a little tiny apartment was like a walk through. The bedroom was all the way on the end. And then there was a little hallway and a little bathroom. And then, the living room and a little kitchen and you’re done.
And we spent holidays there. We would put the table in the living room, cram all these people in there, and there was the kid’s table. My grandpa’s brother was Nikki and Grandpa’s mom, we called Grandma. So my grandmother is Nanny, but Grandma was great grandma.
My grandmother’s sister was Sue. Sue and Larry lived around the corner and they had a dog named Snuffy. He was the most obnoxious little dog.
So when Uncle Nikki and Grandma would come, we would eat real Italian food. As a kid, they didn’t make us eat the Capuzzelle, the sheep’s head or sheep brain. They gave me my little bowl of spaghetti.
But they would slap that thing on the table, the eyeball sticking out, looking at you. And the eyeball is the delicacy. This would only happen when Grandma, Uncle Nicky, my grandfather, Nanny, Sue, Larry, Snuffy and everybody would sit at the table. They would fight over the eyeball because he’s got only one. It’s half a head. Uncle Nicky would always get it.
Dina Parise’s Memories of Her Grandmother Before Dementia
I have the best memories of going to my grandmother’s in the bus. My grandfather died when I was ten. I was a figure skater, so I had my practices and everything, but when I didn’t have a practice, I would go to my grandmother’s and spend the weekend there.
And I loved going shopping with her. And we would go to Arthur Avenue, to Calabria’s, to church, to the Full Moon pizzeria that had the best, thickest Sicilian pizza ever, which was my favorite. And there was a candy store on the corner, which I used to love to go to.
The place I hated to go to the most was the meat market. Because back then, at the meat markets you picked a chicken that was walking around, and they put him on the spinny thing that breaks its neck.
There Artuso’s and DeLillo’s and the pastry shops. We’d go to the deli and there’s a reason that I’m telling you this.
How Did you Find out Your GrandMother had Dementia?
When I was twenty two, I got a phone call from my mom while I was on tour. Nanny had a tumor removed from behind her ear but she was doing good. I had met a guy that wound up being my first husband, I married him when I came back from tour.
And then, I started to see the changes. The progression into her dementia.
Nobody knows why. The doctor didn’t know why. But you could see it triggered it. I would still visit her on weekends and I could see the progression to dementia happening.
One day, her friend Connie called me and said, “Dina, we have a problem. Nanny flushed watermelon rinds down the toilet.”
Nanny lived in a five story walkup building, on the third story. Thank goodness she didn’t ruin the whole plumbing as Connie was able to stop it. Connie came to the rescue a lot. I thank God for Connie, she was my life line.
One time she fell out of bed and she separated her shoulder. Connie found her.
Connie used to go and open the door to make sure she was all right. Nanny would leave the water running or the stove on.
We had to get a lady to come in for a few hours a day. Nanny didn’t like that. She didn’t like anybody since my grandpa died. She was independent and it was a fight from the get go.
When Did they Formally Diagnose Her with Dementia?
I am not sure, but remember I would take care of my grandma a lot. Although I would take the initiative with things, I’m the youngest of four and the only girl in an Italian family. So a lot would still not be told to me.
Maybe they’d take her to the doctor, but I would never be told. Dementia is how it was categorized to me.
We eventually had to take her out of her apartment for her own safety. And probably, for the safety of people around her because she was either going to flood the place or set it on fire. And it was a three floor walk up.
So, we were worried about her and we took her to my mom’s house. I wasn’t living at my mother’s anymore but I wound up staying there a lot because it was a lot for my mom to deal with and we were looking for someone to come and help.
As I worked around the corner I could go there whenever I needed to. I could alter my schedule to do that, which I did.
The Search for a Reliable Home Health Care Aide
This is the thing with home health care aides. It’s not foolproof at all, you need to be on top of it.
I surprise visited one home health care aide one day. She was in her coat, hat and scarf an hour and a half before she was supposed to leave. So, was she going to leave my Nanny by herself? Because an hour and a half is a long time to be in your hat, coat, and scarf.
When I asked her about it, she replied, “I’m got in earlier. Can you sign my card?” And I said, no, and you can get out. She goes, but if you don’t sign this, I don’t get paid. I said, “That’s right. Get out.” And expletives were exchanged. And she left and never saw her again.
The home health aides agency said they could send her back but I said, no, you can’t. I don’t want her to come back here.
By this time my grandmother was not speaking. She had stopped speaking because she was stuttering. She was speaking less and less, and then she just stopped speaking. She got frustrated. I would try to make her talk but she was not speaking at all.
I could read her expressions well. When I would say something to her, she would nod yes or no to me. We were that close. My mother and Nanny were like oil and water sometimes, and my mother would get frustrated with her. So I wanted to be there a lot to diffuse it sometimes.
The Second Home Health Aide
Nanny was strong, like an ox. The same agency sent another home aide and one day I get a phone call at work from this aide stating that my grandmother hit her.
My grandmother liked to sit on a rattan clam chair. And she would have a bit of a hard time getting herself out of it, but she loved sitting on this chair. She had that one shoulder that still bothered her from when she fell.
I think this woman tried to grab her to pull her out of the chair. When I get home, the aide had a handprint on her chest. I asked, “Nanny, what happened?” while looking at the lady.
Not taking sides here but Nanny’s not going to hit her out of the blue. My grandmother was right handed and it was her left hand. And it was her right shoulder that was hurt. So, it was the opposite hand of the shoulder that hurt her.
If somebody hits you, they’re automatically going to do it with their stronger hand. Why would she hit her with her left hand? The lady went to grab her right arm, the one that was bothering her, the one she fell on. She was pulling her out of the chair. And my grandmother went like this because she was hurting her.
That’s what I thought, but I’m not trying to accuse her. I asked her to tell me what happened and the woman said “nothing, I didn’t do anything.” I asked Nanny and my grandmother touched her shoulder.
I said, “Is your shoulder bothering you?”
My grandmother just looked at me.
I said, “did you try to pull her out of the chair?”
She goes, “Well, I have to leave and she needed to go to the restroom.”
The woman wanted my grandmother to go to the restroom before she left. So instead of helping her up, the aide tried to pull her out of the chair and she whacked her. So, now pardon my French, because I’m from New York, I said, “I would have fucking whacked you too. Now you can get out of my house.”
Third Time’s a Charm
I called the agency and we get the third home health aide. Her name was Maria. She was like an angel sent from heaven.
We wound up paying her extra. Hiring her on different days, paying her cash. You could see my grandmother had great affection for her and she loved her back because now we were getting to the point sundowning was starting to set in.
So I was going and staying there with her. And we had a little chamber pot she uses as a restroom instead of having to go to the bathroom.
They tried giving her Ambien to help her sleep. You could give her three of those and they wouldn’t knock her out. She was like an ox, I’m the same way, so now I know where I get it from.
The Sundowners syndrome confusion had become a lot. Once daylight would subside, she became a different person. She would sit down, she would stand up, sit down again. She didn’t know where she wanted to be or what she wanted to do. She had no semblance of where she was. If she wanted to lay down, she would lay down, then she would get up, and this went on all night.
Nothing worked and this was back in ’97 or ’98. There wasn’t a lot available then. Ambien didn’t work. And that was pretty much all they tried, and you don’t want to drag it to no end.
I would sit and I would read to her, talk to her. And treat her like a human being. Now they have those the fidget toys and stuff like that. They didn’t have that then. I would never have thought of getting a kid’s toy or something of that nature to give her. I’m sorry that I didn’t.
She wasn’t a knitter or anything, she liked to cook, she liked to bake, and her dexterity was getting worse. It got to the point where I just talked to her and that was it. And then we finally had to make a decision as we felt like she was merely existing in the house.
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The Memory Care Center Decision
The TV, us, there wasn’t a lot for Nanny to do. That makes you consider skilled nursing facilities but do you really want to put them in a nursing home? On the other hand, do you really want them sitting at home with just you and a TV set?
We felt like there was no sustenance for her and that she needed more care than we could give her. We had to make a decision to actually place her in a memory care center. There was a brand new nursing home opening up Meadowbrook Care Center in Freeport, New York.
And we went to take a look. They had an Alzheimer’s unit that was alarmed in case they wandered off and had a beautiful courtyard area. We wound up putting her in there and I went to visit her every single day.
The other residents knew me because I was there every day. They thought I was there to visit them too. I was okay with it because, and this made me feel sad, many of them were just dropped off and never saw their relatives again. I knew that from talking to the nurses and staff.
I remember this beautiful older black woman named Olga. She had gray hair, always pulled back in a bun, Southern accent, she would crawl with her feet on her wheelchair to come up to me and she’d put her hand in my back pocket. And I would say, “Hi, Olga, how are you today?” She didn’t really say much. They would say that she would never get any visitors. And she was in my grandmother’s unit.
It made me sad that they got dropped off. I would go at different times every day, because I don’t trust anybody. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t trust anybody with my grandmother.
My grandmother was my heart. Which is why my race car was named Stella.
And my grandmother had dementia and diabetes, she had a very mild type 2 diabetes. So I used to get her the diabetic cookies from the bakery. They used to give her the ones in the packet. She would never touch those cookies. She hated them.
I would get her the ones from the bakery and put them in her room next to her bed and she would push the cookies in the packet aside. She always went back to her room to get cookies.
And it’s funny because you could say what you want about a person with dementia, but she never forgot about those cookies. She knew where the good stash was and she would throw down for those cookies.
I would volunteer in the cafeteria. I used to put the bibs on everybody. And that allowed me to spend more time with her but I enjoyed the other residents as well.
Some of them didn’t have any family, so they felt like I was theirs, too. I was kind of everybody’s little granddaughter.
After my grandmother passed we got our dog, Bella, and she became a therapy dog. After seeing all these people who didn’t have anyone that visited them, I decided that Bella was a perfect candidate to be a therapy dog. So, we went to nursing homes for years. These two dogs that we have now would never suffice, but Bella was great at it.
What’s Your Advice to Alzheimer’s Caregivers
The biggest piece of advice is to have a support system because it’s so difficult. You can get swallowed up in it, you definitely need support because it’s hard on your psyche.
Don’t be afraid to talk to them, they’re going to tell you the same story over and over and just roll with it. It can be frustrating, but use the tools that are given to you like the fidget toys. There’s a lot more out there than when we dealt with it.
And there’s a lot on social media now that’s there for the taking, including the MindCrowd blog. Take advantage of it. I wish I had it back then.
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