by Sharon Lovering
When we think of November, most people think about Thanksgiving, family gatherings, and the fabulous meals featuring turkey and all the trimmings. But did you know November is also Alzheimer’s Awareness Month?
President Ronald Reagan designated November as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in 1983. Little did I know then the impact it would have on my family.
The Alzheimer’s Association website states that 5.7 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s. Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States hears a doctor say the words, “You have Alzheimer’s disease.” For my family, that day was in October 2006. But we had suspected it for several years before his diagnosis.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
One of the first things we noticed about Dad was he had lost his sense of smell. He also forgot how to use small appliances he’d been using for years. He ruined a few coffee makers because he couldn’t remember where to put the water, where to put the coffee, and where to place the coffee pot. Or he’d forget to turn it off and burn the pot.
He had trouble concentrating, and on occasion would forget to pay the bills. Then he started having trouble balancing the checkbook. Sometimes he’d forget birthdays, anniversaries, or whether it was Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or Christmas. When he either remembered or checked the family calendar, he’d panic about not having gotten the person a gift, a card, flowers, etc. (Sometimes he’d forget he’d gotten a gift and where he’d put it.)
We also noticed he had difficulty judging distances and determining color or contrast, which created problems for driving. He saw white as yellow, pink as orange — still does — and his ability to judge distances varies daily.
Dad would also ask a question, then a few minutes later, ask it again, sometimes on seemingly endless, hours-long loops. He had trouble following conversation; sometimes he would give up on it altogether or stop in the middle and have no idea what he’d said before. More often than not, he ended up telling the same story multiple times. He also struggled with finding the right word for things.
Eventually he would just point at what he wanted; if he said anything, it was usually “I want … that” as he pointed at a pot of green beans. He would get frustrated when we couldn’t figure out what he wanted. He misplaced things and couldn’t remember where he’d put them. We once found his keys in the refrigerator.
Other common symptoms include poor judgment, such as giving large amounts of money to charities, or paying less attention to grooming and personal hygiene. This wasn’t the case at first for Dad, but as the disease has progressed, getting him into the shower has been a real battle. Some days, getting him out of bed is more challenging than waking a teenager!
The Toll of Alzheimer’s Disease
Moderate Alzheimer’s is usually the longest stage; it can last for years. Symptoms may include:
- Forgetfulness of events or about one’s own personal history;
- Feeling moody or withdrawn, especially in socially or mentally challenging situations;
- Being unable to recall their own address or telephone number or the high school or college from which they graduated;
- Confusion about where they are or what day it is;
- The need for help choosing proper clothing for the season or the occasion;
- Trouble controlling bladder and bowels in some individuals;
- Changes in sleep patterns, such as sleeping during the day and becoming restless at night;
- An increased risk of wandering and becoming lost; and
- Personality and behavioral changes, including suspiciousness and delusions or compulsive, repetitive behavior like hand-wringing or tissue shredding.
One time during this stage, we dropped Dad off at the eye doctor to pick up his new glasses. He got confused on how to get home from the doctor’s office, went the wrong way, and ended up near the entrance ramp to I-66. Luckily, our chiropractor spotted him, recognized him, and gave him a ride home. We never let him go anywhere alone after that incident. We took the car keys away, too.
He has withdrawn from activities he used to enjoy, like attending church and socializing with friends. He is most comfortable sticking close to home, going out for lunch, and listening to me play the piano. Sometimes he’ll sit and watch the Redskins or the Giants play football, but usually, it isn’t long before he’s dozing in his easy chair.
Dad is now in the final stage of this disease. His ability to carry on a conversation is, for all intents and purposes, gone. He still enjoys listening to me play the piano. Sometimes he sings along when I play a familiar hymn. He shuffles along very slowly; Alzheimer’s has affected his balance, but he refuses to use the walker. He repeats himself frequently, but can’t tell us when he’s in pain. He can’t remember how old he is, what day it is, or when his birthday is. He’s as likely to shave off some of his hair as he is to trim his five o’clock shadow. He spends a lot of time sleeping.
This Thanksgiving, my family and I will be thankful for the time we’ve had with him, and for whatever time we have left together. Has this Alzheimer’s journey been easy? No. Though we read books about the subject, and Mom took some classes, nothing truly prepared us for the suspiciousness, sneakiness, or any of the other personality and behavior changes we’ve experienced with Dad. None of the literature warned us about some of the socially unacceptable repetitive behaviors those with Alzheimer’s sometimes develop. Will it get easier? No. Dad needs help with even the simplest activities — making breakfast, dressing, shaving — and every day it seems he’s forgotten how to do something else.
For more information on Alzheimer’s disease, visit www.alz.org, or call 1-800-272-3900.