Jan 12, 2011

Alzheimer's: When It Struck My Family—When It Strikes Your Family

Rita Hayworth, Perry Como, Sugar Ray Robinson, Charlton Heston, Sir Winston Churchhill, Senator Barry Goldwater, President Ronald Reagan, Helen Lamb Hunt. Each of these famous and not so famous people have one thing in common—Alzheimer’s.

Helen Lamb Hunt. Otherwise known as “Pat” or “MawMaw”, she has been my mother-in-law for 35 years. Over the years she has raised two sons, helped with four grandchildren and loved two great grandchildren; she has walked my driveway 1000’s of times, baked thousands of the best chocolate chip cookies, made 100’s of pounds of the best fudge on earth, been to church more than most people, read her Bible through and through, said “I love you” an untold number of times, and asked “Where’s Gene? [my father-in-law],” thousands of times. She’s almost stopped asking now.
Alzheimer’s disease is a complex disorder that causes a gradual loss of brain cells. There is no cure and drugs help only for a short time. The 10 most common warning signs of the disease are:
1.     Memory changes that disrupt daily life.
MawMaw always remembered birthdays, anniversaries, and special events for all her family. Several years ago, yellow sticky notes with reminders began appearing all over her kitchen cabinets. Not only were they reminders for special days, but for taking a pill, turning the dishwasher on, paying a bill.
2.     Challenges in planning or solving problems.
MawMaw always kept the bills paid and the checkbook balanced to the penny. She was meticulous in her math and paying bills early. About 3 years ago she could no longer balance the checkbook. One day there was a cancelation notice in the mailbox that their insurance had been canceled due to non-payment. MawMaw said the post office lost the check, but in fact, the check was never written.
3.     Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
MawMaw always made good coffee, sometimes twice a day. One day she didn’t know how to make the coffee.
4.     Confusion with time or place.
MawMaw fractured her hip recently and was in the hospital. She asked often where she was.
5.     Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
MawMaw was an avid reader. She could finish a good book in a day’s sitting. She read her Bible every day. One day she stopped reading. She said it was because of her cataracts. After her cataract surgery she didn’t read because her glasses weren’t good. Now, I read to MawMaw. 
6.     New problems with words in speaking or writing.
MawMaw repeats a lot. Two years ago she rode home in the car with me from our week at the beach. PawPaw was riding home with my husband. She asked “Where’s Gene” about every 5 minutes. She chewed an entire large pack of gum (after about 5 mins. she would spit the gum out, and then a few minutes later would start to chew another piece because she forgot she just chewed a piece of gum.
7.     Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
MawMaw has kept a lot of things over the years and she’s always known exactly where they were. She can no longer find her clothes in the closet or where she keeps the dish towels.
8.     Decreased or poor judgment.
MawMaw has had a tight curly perm since I’ve known her. Every three months she would drive to Lynchburg to have Miss Betty give her a perm. MawMaw has not had curls for three years. She no longer even brushes her hair unless someone asks her to.
9.     Withdrawal from work or social activities.
MawMaw loved going to Sunday School and preaching. She was in the same Sunday School class for as many years as I’ve been married. MawMaw stopped going to church two years ago.
10.    Changes in mood and personality.
MawMaw was always a caring and loving woman. She lavished kindness on all she knew. She loved babysitting my kids and only had to give them “the eye” to correct them. In the last three years MawMaw has had numerous tantrums. She has broken windows and dishes. She has cut her skin open banging her arm on her hospital bed. She has torn a hospital telephone from the wall.
Alzheimer’s is no respecter of persons. Movie stars, authors, presidents, and even my mother-in-law have had or have Alzheimer’s.  The Alzheimer’s Association reports that “in the United States, 5.3 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and a new individual is diagnosed with the disease every 70 seconds. Unless something is done, by 2050, up to 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s, and new case will be diagnosed every 33 seconds.”
Alzheimer’s has struck my family. However, MawMaw is still my mother-in-law. She loves me and I love her. I am willing and ready to do what I need to in order to care for her and it is an honor and a privilege to do so. I don’t believe any one of us can ask the question, what “if” Alzheimer’s affects my family, rather, ask “when.” Know the warning signs and be prepared to answer a thousand times a thousand “Where’s Gene?”

1 comment:

  1. You have a wonderful writing voice, and this is a very good piece. I took care of Robbie's dad as well as my mom and yes you answer the same questions over and over, just because they can't remember they just asked. Love you and God blesses those who take care of their mothers or mothers in love. Love CAT