Anxious about Alzheimer’s

OK, so I’m not the only one. My friend B. is likewise spooked by the specter of Alzheimer’s or, more broadly, dementia in all its forms—perhaps even more than I, since Alzheimer’s disease runs in her family. She watched her brother slowly lose his mind and then die from Alzheimer’s, and now her sister has been diagnosed with the beginning stages of the disease. Alzheimer’s is the reason B. has long-term care insurance. She knows it could happen to her one day too.

Lately I’m seeing—or fear that I’m seeing—vague harbingers of dementia all around me. A friend says she’s spoken to Joe White when she means Joe Black, a form of verbal confusion known as aphasia, where the word you say is the opposite of the one you mean. Could it be an early symptom of You Know What? Another friend asks twice in the same conversation, just minutes apart, whether my car is a hybrid. Uh oh.

And how about me? I will sometimes fumble for a word that remains maddeningly elusive, creating a momentary conversational gap that (to my complete annoyance) friends or my husband rush to fill with word choices of their own.

Significant? Or am I being paranoid?

The Alzheimer’s Association says 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease today. That seems like too low a number, given that everyone knows someone—a parent, grandparent, spouse or friend—who suffers from it. At any rate, the tally is about to balloon as we baby boomers get older, since age is the single greatest risk factor. I hate that.

My father-in-law had Alzheimer’s. In the beginning, my mother-in-law managed the situation and compensated for his lapses through, it seems, sheer force of will. After she died, the job fell to us. By then Dad was no longer able to live on his own, and he wound up in a nearby VA facility where he received loving care for the last few years of his life. (Don’t believe all those horror stories about VA hospitals. We have nothing but hosannas for this one.)

My husband went to see him every week. I often went too. Dad’s face would light up in a huge smile when he caught sight of his son, but he didn’t quite know who I was—only that I came with George. Still, he was gracious and even a little flirtatious with me, calling me “young lady” because, I suspect, he didn’t remember my name.

We played cards while he still could (he went from master poker player to someone who couldn’t fathom 500 rummy), basked in the sun in the hospital’s roof garden or just watched “Bonanza” together in the day room.

In a weird way, the Alzheimer’s made it easier for my husband to connect with his dad. The disease wore away the rough edges and softened them both. It was one of the surprising gifts from an otherwise implacable foe.


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