Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remembering Those With Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's Disease seems to surround me. Those who suffer from it are never far from my thoughts and prayers. Since November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month, I'd like to take this opportunity to remember the very special people in my life who have suffered and are suffering from this awful disease.

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My grand Aunt Helena suffered from Alzheimer's Disease. I didn't know her well, having only met her once that I can remember (and that was before she was afflicted with Alzheimer's). I recall being startled by how much she resembled my grandmother. Yes, they were sisters, but not all sisters look as much alike as these two did. I wish I'd known her better. Helen died December 17, 1996. Rest in peace, dear aunt.

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My first real experience with Alzheimer's Disease came in the early 1990s when my best friend's mother, Anna, was diagnosed with it. Neither one of us fully understood the ramifications of the diagnosis back then. I can remember my friend's frustration as her mother would phone her at work 6, 7, 8, or more times a day, in an agitated state, to ask her to stop at the post office on the way home and buy her some stamps. My friend would patiently explain to her mother that she'd already bought her stamps and that they were in the top drawer of her desk. She'd wait for her mother to go check the desk drawer and when she found the stamps she would be content. But a few minutes later she'd call back with the same request.

I remember when my friend had to take the car keys away from her mother and how awful she felt about it. Her mother didn't take it well. Not too long after that, Anna became unable to live independently and was placed in an assisted living facility... the very same one my own mother would become a resident of 10 years later. Anna died May 29, 1999. Here are the happy memories of her I hang on to...

Anna was a delightful lady. She was a warm and funny person, prone to bursting out in song or rhyme at any moment. She was charming and effortlessly made the people around her smile. She was a good cook, kept a tidy house, and was a terrific Bridge player. I could never beat her, though many times I tried! Witty. She was very witty. And she had a twinkle in her eye. I always remember her smiling. God bless you Anna.

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My mother's sister, Helen, was the next person I knew who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease. She became afflicted with it some time in the mid 1990s though her symptoms were much more bizarre than Anna's. The best way I can describe what Helen went through is to say that her mind/memories became twisted. At one point she thought she was being poisoned by carbon monoxide emissions from her furnace. When a furnace inspection deemed her furnace safe, she became convinced she was being poisoned by fumes from bags of fertilizer being stored in the basement of her condo (she lived on the second floor). When the condo supervisor had the fertilizer removed from her building she decided her condo was cursed and refused to sleep in it. She slept on the floor out in the building hallway many nights, we would later find out. Helen had had physical symptoms that contributed to her delusions. She broke out in a rash that was untreatable and her stomach bloated till she looked like she was pregnant. Later we discovered she had been overdosing on aspirin (due to her forgetfulness) and that's what had caused her symptoms.

Helen was my mom's only sister. Her husband died many years before her and they never had children. Before the Alzheimer's, she'd joined our family for holiday dinners, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, every year. One year she just refused to come anymore and when pressed for a reason she would only say, "I just want to stay home". We brought food and gifts to her instead and she seemed content enough with that. For a time. Then she refused our food and gifts too. It wasn't until after her funeral that I was able to put the pieces together. She'd become convinced that my mother had had an affair with her husband years ago and was resentful of that. She wrote my mom and I out of her will based on that cockamamie idea. My mom was devastated. She and her sister had been very close. Helen died December 21, 2001.

I remember Helen as a woman who loved bowling and golf. Especially golf. I remember golfing with her at what used to be Burrough's Country Club (I believe it was in Brighton, MI). Helen was a career woman who worked for many years at R. L. Polk before taking a job at Burroughs (which later became Unisys). She and my mom traveled together after they retired. They saw Pope John Paul II in Toronto, and tried their luck gambling in Atlantic City, N. J. among the other places they visited. She and my mom also took senior aerobics and dance classes together. I remember the funny stories they would tell about the antics those seniors would get into! LOL!

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Bob was a friend of mine who was afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease. His mental decline was so rapid that to this day I am mystified by it. In January of 2006 we were still emailing back and forth about our genealogy research (with no hints of his dementia) and a mere 14 months later he'd died from Alzheimer's. I wrote a tribute to Bob right after he died so I won't repeat myself here. You can read about him here. Bob died on March 18, 2007. God bless you, friend.

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I was first aware that my mom, Lucy, had Alzheimer's Disease in 2004. It started with her repeating herself, evidence of short term memory loss. The memory loss progressed over the years to the point where she could no longer remember the names of her children or grandchildren. In her last months the memories she spoke of and the people she spoke to were her parents and siblings, back in her childhood. Surprisingly, she was able to read and speak in both Polish and English right up till the end. In the 3 years that she suffered from Alzheimer's she did the typical wandering off and getting agitated in the evenings, what's commonly referred to as "sun downer's syndrome". She was not able to tolerate the only medication that's effective for treating Alzheimer's (Arecept) and her decline was pretty steady. You can read more about the course of her affliction here. Lucy died April 23, 2007. I miss you, mom.

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My dear father in law, Mike, has been afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease for over 8 years now. He's taking Arecept and it has helped make his decline a slow one. One of the first things we noticed in him was a change in his personality. He became short tempered, angered easily. Pretty early on he lost his ability to read and speak too. As with the others, his decline has been hard to take. He was such a great story teller. I miss hearing about his life growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He's still with us in body but his spirit and personality are gone.

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I've had so much pain and sorrow in my life from watching the decline of those close to me as a result of Alzheimer's Disease. As you can see, it presents slightly differently in everyone. It takes a different course, at a different pace, but causes an inevitable mental decline for all it touches. How I wish there was a way to stop it in its tracks. How I fear that I will one day lose my mental abilities to the savage beast that is Alzheimer's. Let us all pray for a cure.

2 comments:

  1. Jasia,
    I can really relate to your stories. My beloved Mother suffered first from cancer and then right into Alzheimer's. She was gone within three short years. Her sister was affected for a much longer time span...for eight long years and her daughter took care of her 24/7. God bless her. The disease takes so much away from them and from us. I pray for all of us affected one way or another with this dreadful disease. Thank you for sharing such beautiful tributes to those you loved. We can all share your sediment.

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  2. Jasia - so sad to read about all those loved ones afflicted with this. I count my blessings each day that none in my family have had to endure this. Thanks for sharing your heartbreaking stories and reminding all of us just how devastating this illness is.

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