Brooke Shields My Mother Has Dementia

updated 06/01/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2009 01:00AM

This Mother's Day three generations of Shields women took a stroll in Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District. There was Brooke, 44, and husband Chris Henchy, 45, out with daughters Rowan, 6, and Grier, 3. And there too was Brooke's mother, Teri, 75. "I heard this loud laugh, and I turned around and it was Brooke," says an observer. "Everything seemed fine. Teri was playing with the kids, and Brooke took a picture."

That snapshot didn't tell the whole story. Five days later Shields was forced to go public with what had been a private struggle—her decision to move her mother, who has been diagnosed with dementia, into a nursing home. She released a statement after police told her that a tabloid reporter, accompanied by a photographer, had checked her mother out of a New Jersey assisted-living center. Police found Teri and the reporter in a nearby steak house, but determined there was no "criminal activity," says Capt. Thomas Shine. (The reporter claimed he is a friend of Teri's and was helping her get lunch.)

Moving her mother out of her longtime home in Haworth, N.J., was "a very difficult decision," Shields told PEOPLE. "It is one of the most difficult experiences you can go through as a son or daughter." For Shields, it's even more wrenching because of her complicated relationship with Teri. A former model who was divorced from Brooke's father, Frank, a Revlon executive, when Brooke was an infant (he died in 2003), Teri was known as a hard-driving stage mother. She was also, Shields has said, an alcoholic, and "that affects everything," she told LIFE in 2007. In 1995 Shields dropped her as her manager, and the two grew apart. "We talk every day, but I have to draw a line," Shields told Life. "Or I get pulled back in."

Then, in recent years, Teri began to change. "She'd always be losing her keys, or she would bang on our door saying her phone didn't work when it was just off the hook," says a neighbor. Soon Shields stepped in. Now, says a friend, "she's responsible for everything." At the same time she's busy being a mother herself, trying to give her daughters something she never had: a normal childhood. "She's a beautiful mom, taking care of them without spoiling them," says Kathleen Marshall, her director on the Broadway show Wonderful Town. Marshall says Shields recently talked about her mother's situation: "She's very direct and honest but doesn't dwell on it."

Being part of the sandwich generation—caring for her kids and her mom—is a challenge those who know Shields say she can handle. "With her, family comes first," says her friend. "She's doing the best she can to take care of her mom."

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