The Simple Life
by Michele Meier Vosberg
Remembering a Life
This is not the column I originally wrote for this space. The first column I wrote will have to wait for another time. This week, my aunt, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was struck by a car and killed. It is a scary thing, Alzheimer’s, because we don’t really understand it. It makes its victims strangers, unable to maintain rational thought, and blurring the lines between perception and reality. The Alzheimer’s patient is not the person we know and love; it is as if someone has borrowed the spirit and soul leaving the familiar body behind.
Alzheimer’s disease runs in my mother’s family. It is enough to make me both watchful and wary. It is easy to joke, upon entering a room and forgetting what I came in for, that it is the Alzheimer’s. Other people joke about having a senior moment, in my family we joke about it being the early signs of Alzheimer’s. It isn’t funny.
In the end, my aunt was consistently confused. She cooked dinner for her long dead parents and bought shoes for her new baby sister. She had conversations with people only she saw. She frantically searched for a paycheck from a job she had held forty years ago. She once told my mother she had to leave an anniversary party to pick up my cousin at his catechism class. My cousin is thirty six years old and hasn’t been to his catechism class for a good twenty five years. She regularly tried to leave her house, where she had lived for more than thirty years, to go walking “home.” It was during an episode like this that she died.
Alzheimer’s takes an incredible toll on the patient’s family. My uncle cared for my aunt, not looking for relief from a nursing home or care center because he was afraid that no one else could handle her. He worked at his care taking role admirably. It is a twenty four hour a day job. There is no relief, ever. It is an impossible job. If you turn your back for a second, she could be doing something dangerous. We worried about my uncle, worried that in a fit of rage, common to Alzheimer’s patients, that my aunt would attack him with a knife or some heavy object. We worried that she would turn on the stove and burn the house down. As it turned out, worrying wasn’t enough.
Needing to know more about Alzheimer’s, I did some research. The internet contains a wealth of information, though I couldn’t help wondering if many of the families dealing with Alzheimer’s have access to this amount of knowledge. Not everyone, particularly many senior citizens, have internet access. Where do they get the information they need? My uncle isn’t big on doctors, did someone explain to him what he could expect? Did he know that my aunt was following a fairly predictable pattern? Early signs of Alzheimer’s include being unable to plan meals or manage money, and losing a sense of direction. I distinctly remember my aunt at this stage, cooking hotdogs on the stove with no water in the pan and spending money with reckless abandon. She got lost a few blocks from her home while following a road she had been on hundreds of times. Middle to late Alzheimer’s symptoms often include irritability, anxiety, depression, delusions, hallucinations, aggression and wandering. This is a virtual description of my aunt’s last months.
Alzheimer’s affects an estimated four million Americans. As American’s are expected to live longer life spans that ever more, that number is expected to rise to fourteen million by 2040. Fourteen million! I am awed by the statistic. A few years ago Alzheimer’s disease wasn’t even recognized. Now it threatens to become the disease of the future senior citizens. That’s not how I’ve dreamed of spending my golden years, but it becomes an increasingly possible reality.
There is no known specific cause of Alzheimer’s and no cure; it is unpredictable and irreversible. Researchers at Medical College of Wisconsin are working on development of an imaging test which could some day identify Alzheimer’s risk. According to the October issue of Neuropsychology, simple systematic memory training can help people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Scientists are working on promising drugs. One study which shows promise includes taking aspirin as a preventative drug, much as it is currently being used for preventing heart attacks. Other scientists have discovered a genetic connection which links Alzheimer’s to the 12th and 19th chromosomes. They know that higher education may correlate positively against contracting the disease.
I feel a touch grateful for my education, but basically I know am helpless when it comes to doing anything to be proactive in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. It is a sobering thought for someone who likes to be in control of things; this is something we cannot control. This week, while Alzheimer’s becomes painfully real for my family, I am made more aware of how powerless we are in this endeavor of life. I know there is not much I can do except for maybe say a prayer, write a poem and remember a life. It is not enough, but it will have to do.
Alzheimer’s may come And borrow you for a while Making your memories blur Like foggy pictures from long ago It may make you childlike Or angry and defiant Or confused and uncertain Unsure of who you are And where you are going But ultimately Alzheimer’s will not win We will take you back Those who love you With memories of long ago When we were children Or young parents chasing toddlers Memories of proud grandparents Smiling at the new baby We will take you back with hundreds and thousands of memories Of better days and times Alzheimer’s may try to take you But you do not belong in its clutches Alzheimer’s may borrow you for a while But in the end we will take you back For you do not belong to Alzheimer’s You belong to us.
For Aunt Elnor, with love.
Michele Meier Vosberg is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer. She’s doing her best live a simple life in a complicated world. When all else fails you can find her in the backyard reading a book