Published Mon Jun 17, 2019 | Posted in Health Cares | By Linda Jenkinson |
As my mother was doing dishes she looked out of the west-facing window and saw her 76-year-old husband up on the neighbor’s roof. She gasped, a sound that stopped short of being a scream. She dropped the plate in her hand back into the dishwater, grabbed the dish towel, and went into the living room. She sat down in her rocker and waited for my Dad to come home.
Several hours later, he came through the door and she read him the riot act. “I can’t stop you from getting on top of a roof,” she said, “but if you insist on risking your life, please tell me ahead of time so I won’t have to watch.”
“Halvorsen asked me to help him re-roof his house,” Dad said. His answer wasn’t unusual. Dad often offered a helping hand to our neighbors and carpentry was one of his many talents. He had been a school bus driver, a janitor, a gardener/landscaper, and a substitute mail carrier as well as a carpenter. He was a jack-of-all-trades, but he was a master of every single one he plied.
Sometimes I wonder if that day was when the disease first touched him. Most often Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in a person’s mid-60s. Were there other instances that we hadn’t noticed or was Mom making too much out of nothing?
When it began doesn’t matter, though. Eventually Alzheimer’s would strip away every facet of Dad’s life, just as it does to millions of Americans. Experts estimate that this insidious disease afficts over 5.5 million Americans(1). Science hasn’t found exactly what causes Alzheimer’s or how to stop it, although recent research has exposed some ways to slow the disease down.
Alzheimer’s is a slippery assailant. Of it’s three phases the first is the most odious:
- An agoraphobic word that lies on the tip of your tongue, but refuses to leave your mouth and enter the conversation.
- An open cupboard door that you peer into, wondering what you were looking for.
- Watching your train of thought pull out of the station without you.
We all have momentary lapses in memory. We laugh and call them “Senior Moments” and sometimes, that’s all they are. But, for some of us, they are the beginning of Alzheimer’s and there is no way to determine which is which or what's next. Are we experiencing a momentary lapse or is it the terrifying beginning of letter by letter, misplaced word by word, losing one’s mind?
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia is the elderly, but it can and does strike younger people. Approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have the type of Alzheimer’s called younger or early-onset Alzheimer’s(2).
As Alzheimer’s progresses, it leaves little doubt in anyone’s mind that there is a definite problem. My Dad was my stepfather. He and I were never close. For over a decade I was convinced that he disliked me as fervently as I disliked him. We rarely spoke beyond what was civil. That’s why one of our last conversations seems so memorable. I was an adult by then. Dad was in his early 80’s. I was visiting my mother and she had left the room for a moment. Dad came in and sat down across from me. He leaned forward and said, “I was so ashamed today, Linda.”
At that point, I’m sure my head visibly snapped to attention. I had never before heard my dad admit to any fault or mistake. “I found myself downtown.” he continued,“I looked down at my feet and I was still wearing my bedroom slippers. What's next?"
That’s all he said. I don’t remember if I even replied. He got up and went upstairs. In that instant, the anger I had carried around for nearly two decades evaporated and for the first time, I saw not the step-dad, but the man. My heart broke for him. His fear of losing his faculties was palpable. How horrible it must be when you are lucid to realize there are times when you are not.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel thief. It steals the past as well as the future. I watched my father’s eyes grow more and more distant as the disease progressed until he was somewhere so far away, I could only pray that he was content there. Patty Reagan(3)
When Dad was 86 he had some serious health problems that made it impossible for Mom to take care of him on her own. Besides physical problems, his periods of lucid consciousness had waned. He often didn’t know my mother, who had been his wife for 32 years. The last time I saw him, he recognized me as a girl who had ridden his school bus, years ago. I wasn’t sorry that he no longer knew me. I remembered the bedroom slippers and was grateful that he no longer had the embarrassment of lucidity interrupting his thoughts.
- “Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet.” National Institute on Aging. Accessed 1 May 2019.
- “What Is Alzheimer’s?” Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. Accessed 1 May 2019.
- “Opinion | Alzheimer’s Is a Cruel Thief. Don’t Blame Caregivers for Still Finding Joy.” Washington Post, Accessed 5 Feb. 2019.