I don’t. Despite the fact that someone to whom I’m very close, someone I love, has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for almost two decades, I don’t know much. If you want the science facts: search the Internet, contact your local Alzheimer’s Association, attend support groups and conferences. They are your best resources. I know the basics, of course, but the full history, science, probable outcome, care giving tips, and research on cures – other places will get you more accurate and current information.
This is what I do know: how it feels to be on the inside. If you are a family member, you are as confused, angry, and miserable as the person you love who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In their situation, they rage, weep, howl, throw things, and demand to go home. When you witness their fury, you demand to go home. If they don’t live in a residential facility designed to care for them, and if they live with you, you demand to get the hell out of there. When you leave the place where they reside, you drive dangerously because you are in tears or you’re fuming or you’re demanding of God and all the gods: Where is the justice or fairness of this horrendous disease? And when the hell will it end?
Not just when the hell are they going to find the right pharmaceuticals to stop it or slow it down, when the hell are they going to develop a vaccine to prevent it, when the hell are they going to have the medical protocol to reverse it. But when the hell is the hell you and your loved live every day of your life going to end? And the self-recrimination that erodes your soul because you are more aware than anyone on earth that it will end, at least for your particular loved one who suffers, and for you who also suffer, when they die. And that’s hard to face – your own admission that they’ve had enough of this frightening illness that keeps them from knowing where they are, who they are, and when they can get back to something pleasantly familiar. Your own admission that you feel exactly the same – when can you get back to something pleasantly familiar?
You must begin with language, an odd requirement as the loss of appropriate language is one of the identifying marks of the disease. For us, language is not elusive – it’s inadequate. All the superlative words you may summon are nothing compared to how you feel. Try “angry” – you are way beyond angry, you are enraged, you are furious, you are near homicidal, but who would you kill? How about “despair” – you’ve fallen into the depths of anguish so deep that you’re certain you no longer reside on Earth, yet there’s nowhere for you to go. Or think of “regret” – is there some way to explain how sorry you are for everything you may have done to have caused or exacerbated this illness, so you may return to the way things were?
At least I have the answer to that last one – nothing. You did nothing. Likely your loved one did nothing either. Because despite all the warnings about avoiding inflammation and good diets and lots of healthy activities, the evidence that none of that is any protection lives in the same facility where your loved one lives. Doctors, astronauts, engineers, inventors, teachers, entrepreneurs, nurses, physicists, artists, clergy – they are not just the visitors: they are the afflicted. They are the ones who have forgotten they once headed the pediatric ward at a hospital, or worked on the security team for NASA, or started a well known business still serving the needs of millions of people across the country, or spoke words of faith to the congregation. Because they have forgotten everything — what they ate for breakfast, your name, perhaps their own name, and eventually the ability to speak at all.
Superlative language is a pile of gunk. It doesn’t fit the situation. Make a list of words for yourself – best, first, most, last, worst, hardest – and eliminate everything not strong enough, or descriptive enough, or just plain not expressive enough. You’ll be left with what your loved one is left with: nothing. Zilch. Nada. Bupkes. A big freaking blank. Language as we know it doesn’t touch our desolation. Or theirs.
And how, you wonder, do I, a getting-older woman who’s written six books and one more in production stage, none of which have been published, who was an art teacher and a religious school teacher of decent but really ordinary rank, have the nerve to write about Alzheimer’s in the first place? What gives me the inside edge to write with authority, to point the way for others lost in the fog, and to offer, God forbid, advice? Following is the answer.
My mother has Alzheimer’s. Your husband or wife, your mother or father, your sister or brother, your best friend or closest advisor, your neighbor or colleague has it. Someone you know suffers. I’m going to help you here, you who stand by the side of the person you love. My credentials are not based on science. They are based on proximity and endurance, neither of which I asked for, neither of which my mother asked for.
As an artist, I’ve been trained to see the details, the outlines, the comprehensive whole by which I’m able to project a visual image others can recognize. As a teacher, I’ve been trained to pay close attention to the total affect of my students and to the way they internalize information so they can actually learn something. I know how to describe what’s going on.
And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to describe what’s going on with those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, though not the scientific or medical portion of this illness. I know what happens to the others who suffer – the family loyally by the side of the afflicted. I’m a warrior here. I’m going to report on the front line battles and back end skirmishes from the point of view of a dedicated observer.
Come back. Future posts will address the issues for which the medical community has no answers. I may not have the answers either, but I know the paths on which you will journey and I will help illuminate them. And why, you ask, why her, the writer, the teacher, the artist? What are her credentials?
And in case you’re wondering: no one knows enough about Alzheimer’s disease.
Photo of woman crying courtesy: maxipixel.freegreatpicture.com – Creative Commons Zero – CCO