We were eating dinner with Hal’s parents not long ago. Both in their 90s, they now live with different members of the family, as the grown kids take turns caring for them. We were at Hal’s brother’s place that evening. Bill took a bite of his home-canned peaches, looked up at me and recited, “Fruit, fruit, fruit! The more you eat, the more you toot!” He then grinned and commented, “It’s been a long time since I remembered that poem.”
A long time indeed. In all my years of knowing him, I have never heard him recite anything like that. Bible verses and old hymns, yes. But he kept a strict watch on his, and his family members,’ words, not tolerating anything flippant, crude or even vaguely nasty.
It gave me a delightful glimpse into him as a normal little boy, mouthing off, probably giggling at his audacity. Unless caught, of course, by his parents.
It also gave me a more sobering glimpse into what Alzheimer’s disease is doing to his personality. While this is a relatively minor incident (absolutely no one at the table was mortified), it is but one example of the multitude of behavioral changes we are all observing, not to mention the memory loss and general confusion. Younger members of the family are asking, “Who is this strange old person?”
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that affects memory, cognitive and reasoning ability, language and behavior. There is as yet no cure. According to a feature article that came out in Time magazine in 2010, “More than 5 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer's disease, a number that will grow to 13.4 million by 2050.”
In other words, what’s happening in our family is not unusual.
And yet it is entirely unique and strange and frightening because this time it’s us—our father and grandpa—that it’s happening to.
I recently read a novel that is helping me find some perspective on dealing with Alzheimer’s. Actually, Still Alice, is more than a novel because its author, Lisa Genova, is a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and the National Alzheimer’s Association has endorsed the book as accurately portraying the disease.
Genova tells the story of Alice Howland, a renowned Harvard psychology professor, who comes down with early onset Alzheimer’s while in her fifties and at the height of her professional career. The novel is from Alice’s point of view, beginning with the ordinary frustration of misplacing her glasses, building through a series of small incidents to a growing awareness that something is wrong, climaxing in the frightening diagnosis, and continuing with the chronicle of slow decline. Not only Alice’s reactions, but those of her family are portrayed in this moving story as husband and grown kids come to realize that with all the changes and even the lack of recognition, she’s still a valuable person. She’s still wife and mother. She’s still Alice.
The story suddenly seems all too real. It helps me understand some of what may be going on with my father-in-law.
When our grown kids write to ask how their grandpa is, I feel the responsibility to tell the truth. So I detail some of the changes and challenges, try to prepare them as best I can. After all, he may not recognize them the next time they see him.
But I also remind them that he’s still grandpa.