“Alzheimer’s in America” informs the mind; captures the heart
“I spent most of my life under my grandmother’s roof…She was the love of my life…The disease took her mind away…She never really understood I was becoming a professional player and what that meant…”
The above quote is taken from an essay by Terrell Owens, wide receiver for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, describing how Alzheimer’s disease affected him very personally. Owen’s account is just one of many personal stories in “Alzheimer’s in America: The Shriver Report on Women and Alzheimer’s,” a study about Alzheimer’s by Maria Shriver and the Alzheimer’s Association.
Each story about the loss Alzheimer’s brings to the people who have the disease, and those who love them, is well written and emotional. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite as each is important in its own way, however Owen’s story hit a personal note with me.
Normally, I’d be hard pressed to find any comparison between myself, a 5 foot 3 inch woman writer and a professional football player, but dementia is a great equalizer. My parents, especially my dad who was thrown into instant dementia by a failed surgery, never got to see my goal of writing for a living materialize. Dad never saw my weekly column appear in the newspaper he’d read for a lifetime. He never saw my book published, with his image on the cover. Dementia destroyed his ability to grasp reality. Yes, Terrell Owens and I have something in common and we are not alone in this, I know.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
“Alzheimer’s in America” may, at first glance, seem intimidating. It’s packed with facts, figures, graphs and end notes. However, deftly interspersed throughout, are essays from medical experts who combine their scientific knowledge with heartfelt compassion, and family members who have suffered the agony of watching a beloved parent, friend, spouse or sibling cognitively disappear into another world. The leavening provided by these human experiences results in an emotional book grounded in enough science to win a researcher’s respect.
My dad didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but his dementia put him into his own world as surely as Alzheimer’s does others. Was the fact that his dementia was “instant” rather than slowly developing easier or harder on him and the family? I don’t know. That’s like asking if it’s better to have someone you love die quickly with no warning, or go through the process of a long, drawn-out suffering.
Different dementias, comparable pain
My dad always recognized his family and friends, for which I’m grateful. Not everyone has that gift. Alzheimer’s disease is known for robbing one of the ability to recognize faces and remember recent events. While dad’s dementia was horrifying at times, and painful on his best days, there was comfort for his family in that he recognized us for who we were. Many of you reading this article walk into the room of your loved one knowing they will have no idea that you are their child or spouse. My heart breaks for you.
Yet Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and the many other types of dementia all rob our loved one's brain of the ability to process information. Slowly, or quickly, we lose our loved ones as we knew them. And they lose us, no matter how hard we try to stick with them.
Don’t give up on your loved one with dementia. We don’t really know how much they comprehend on a subliminal level. We don’t know if a part of them still understands we are doing all we can for them. What we do know is that they are human to the end, and that they need our comfort, our loving touch and any other help we can offer.
Terrell, I’m telling you that on some level your grandma knows you have succeeded in your dream. She just does. My dad knows, too, that I am doing what I love. There is comfort in that.
With work and funding to end Alzheimer’s disease will come more knowledge about other dementias. We must find a way to cure them or stop them in their tracks. Meanwhile, we must do what we can for those who have the disease. We must allow them to keep their dignity. We must remember who they were and who they are still. We must love them until the end, as they loved us.
Read “Alzheimer’s in America” for facts, for stories and most of all for hope. “Alzheimer’s in America,” is available in bookstores and online.