I rarely use the word "hate," but I can say that there was a time when I truly despised Alzheimer's Disease. This illness slowly stole my grandfather from me, the man who was the only father-figure in my life. It stole a father and grandfather away from his children and grandchildren, and a husband away from his wife of over 50 years.
I recall my grandfather being a strong, hard-working man who over time became weak and incapable of caring for himself, requiring a wheelchair and 24-hour care. His physical presence was always felt but slowly, he became insecure—requiring that my grandmother always be present, as she was the most familiar face he knew. He also became timid, appearing anxious around family members. He was always a man of few words but the illness even took his speech and ability to express himself. I can only imagine that in his mind, he was constantly surrounded by unfamiliar faces. When people greeted him, he would politely smile back—even if he did not recognize who they were.
My heart grew sad as I witnessed my grandfather move more slowly, requiring more assistance to eat, shower, and care for himself. I recall the day I saw him and he looked back at me like he never saw me before. How can someone you grow to love and know so well forget who you are? What about the time he taught me to sweep, or tie my shoes? What about the walks to school? It felt unfair and wrong. My grandfather was present physically, but all of his memories were gone. He was, in essence, a different person.
I recall our family meeting to discuss the time my grandfather woke up at night, opening the front door, and began wandering. I also recall the impact that the illness took on my grandmother. It drained her emotionally, requiring her to remain constantly aware of his location. There was an occasion when my grandmother needed to go to the market, and she asked me to watch my grandfather. He asked for "my lady," as he referred to her, and I gently reassured him several times as he paced the living room. I felt anxious at times, thinking that he may want to leave the house to look for her.
Lesson #1 from Alzheimer's: Appreciating Family
I had a hard time accepting his diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease. I now understand how the illness is diagnosed and progresses, affecting the brain and every part of the body. The first lesson Alzheimer's Disease taught me was the value of life, thanking God for every day I have and the cherishing moments I spend with family, friends, and loved ones. I agree with the cliche that says you never know how much you love someone until they are gone.
Lesson #2 from Alzheimer's: Awareness & Research
Alzheimer's has also taught me that until we can find a cure for this disease, we must do our part, in every way possible, to assist the cause through supporting current research efforts, participating in initiatives to promote awareness, and educating ourselves about the disease. In these ways, we can help everybody get closer to a breakthrough.
Lesson #3 from Alzheimer's: Preventing My Own Risk of Developing Alzheimer's
Lastly, my grandfather's journey with Alzheimer's has also reinforced the importance of me making efforts now to decrease my risk of developing Alzheimers. Starting the process, even at a young age, of eating a heart- and brain-healthy diet—rich in foods packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals—along with getting regular exercise makes a big difference. If you're interested in my recommendations for preventing Alzheimer's Disease, check out my article on ways to reduce your risk now.
I no longer hate Alzheimer's Disease. I do recognize it, though, as an illness that affects many in unfortunate ways. I am confident with cutting edge research, increased awareness, and improved health choices, a breakthrough for this illness is on the way.
(Editor's note: if you're interested in some of the latest Alzheimer's disease research & scientists' opinions on how soon the next treatment for Alzheimer's will come, check out Caretalk's Research & Breakthroughs section!)