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Alzheimer’s Awareness: Remembering For Those Who Cannot

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. For more information about Alzheimer’s Disease and resources for help, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association website at www.alz.org

My Nana made the most incredible apple pies. She sliced red and green apples against her thumb, flavored them perfectly with sugar and cinnamon and baked them into hand-rolled dough. No Thanksgiving was, or will be, complete without Nana’s apple pie.

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She moved into the finished extension in our house when I was still very young. I’m not sure I remember back to a time Nana wasn’t under the same roof. She was a formidable thing, tiny and birdlike, with permed white curls and the brightest blue eyes. Spry and sassy, she loved The Young and the Restless and Wheel of Fortune and devoured Danielle Steel novels from the library (large print, of course).

Then everything changed.

It was subtle at first: forgetfulness, irritability, disorientation. We attributed it to old age, but we were wrong. Nana forgot who she was, where she was and when she was. She didn’t recognize her daughter or grandchildren, even though we all lived in the same house. Not understanding that her own parents were long passed, she regressed to her childhood. Paranoia set in and she was convinced that we had kidnapped her and were holding her against her will. 

Every day, we lost just a little bit more of her, until the Nana we knew wasn’t even there anymore. First, she was gone in mind, and then in body. She succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease. 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association

“Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that damages and eventually destroys brain cells, leading to memory loss and changes in thinking and other brain functions. It usually develops slowly and gradually gets worse as brain function declines and brain cells eventually wither and die. Ultimately, Alzheimer’s is fatal, and currently, there is no cure.”

In the 1980s, we didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s. Honestly, we still don’t. We can recognize the signs and the stages, identify some of the risk factors, but at this time, no one has a handle on why it effects one person in a family and not another. Why someone in their 90s never forgets a detail and someone else in her 30s is stricken down by a disease which robs her of her memories and sense of self. 

Doctors and researchers race to find answers to this global health crisis, and made advancements in treatments and medications every day, but it’s just not fast enough. 

Over the past few years, my husband’s father has faltered, becoming forgetful and withdrawn. In the beginning, it wasn’t too worrisome, but soon, the memory gaps and behavioral changes prompted his wife to seek answers. My father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year. As a family, we now work hard to support both him and my mother-in-law, whose role has quickly changed from partner to caretaker.

It’s heartbreaking to see the changes in the man my son knows as Pop Pop. I am devastated for my husband and his siblings and our nieces and nephews, who have to come to terms with the knowledge that the person who used to head their family may no longer remember them from one day to the next. Geographically, none of us are close, so we do our best to help my mother-in-law find resources, programs and physicians over the phone and online, and we visit when we can to offer assistance and respite.

Last year, joined by Pop Pop, some family members and friends, we raised funds and walked for Alzheimer’s Awareness and Research. 

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On November 19, we will do the same, wearing purple, in support of Pop Pop and his wife, and in memory of those we have lost. 

On Thanksgiving, I will make Nana’s apple pie, to honor her memory.

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After all, memories are what we have left.

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