Alzheimer’s Disease: Holding onto Humanity


We’re talking today about Alzheimer’s
disease. This is a terrible disease that can affect anyone no matter how healthy or active they are, and it seems that almost everyone has a story about
someone they know, someone in their family. My own stepfather got early-onset
Alzheimer’s disease and died of it. I remember when my mother told me that she knew something was really wrong: She and George were sitting in the living room
and he repeatedly asked her about their friend Peter, but they didn’t have a
friend named Peter. George was an ambitious man. He’d served in the military, and after that he became a college professor and then a
university president and finally the head of a major museum. He loved to read, play sports, go ocean fishing on his motorboat — and all of those things were
destroyed by Alzheimer’s. His decline was a rocky ride for the family. He started
doing crazy things like walking unbidden into the house of neighbors, even of
complete strangers. He became the target of phone scammers who specifically target elderly people and people with dementia, and he spent
thousands of dollars on things like bogus lottery tickets until my mother
finally canceled all his credit cards. He insisted on driving his car long after
he should have, a problem that my mother solved — actually kind of creatively — by
talking to the police chief in the small town where they’d retired. He showed up
in full uniform and told George that he was officially no longer permitted to
drive, and that did the trick as George’s mind, weak as it was, still respected
authority. There were unexpected moments of grace, too: I went back East one Christmas when my mother was still taking care of George at
the house. The truth is that he’d never really liked me very much. He was from a
generation and a subculture that had been raised with certain prejudices, and
one of them was that he did not see women as equals. But as his memory faded, he forgot that and he became friendly, almost childlike. When my mother was in
the other room, he told me … he said, “I’m so glad that you’ve come home for Christmas, not just for your mother’s sake but for my sake. And you are a wonderful person.”

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