About a year-and-a-half ago, I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s. We never actually called it that–we used terms like “dementia,” as if it made his condition seem a little better.
I remember his health decline clearly. Starting after the death of my grandmother in 1997. I remember how he struggled to stay independent, and how that was taken away with the keys to his car. His bi-weekly social trips to ElderPlace were punctured with visits and probably long spans of watching Jeopardy and the Wheel by himself.
Then we had to sell the house. I practically grew up there, that’s how much time I spent there as a kid. It meant that I couldn’t swing in his backyard or pick blueberries or watch his impressive garden grow. I couldn’t sneak candy bars from the bottom drawer in the kitchen, and I couldn’t spend the night and look forward to his breakfasts in the morning. Aside from giving up the car, I can imagine that giving up his home was the hardest part.
When it came to the point when doctors told us that his heart would probably give out before the dimentia got bad, it seemed like eons away.
For the next several years, he jumped from assisted living apartments to foster home to foster home. My family wanted him to be in a home, rather than a facility, but as the disease progressed, he became aggressive–more than many could take–and at the end, he shared a hospital-like room with another person in a special wing.
Even during the beginning stages of the disease, he remembered our names, sang us opera, gave us cookies, and loved his Anisette. But as time moved on, he started to forget names. He stopped making appearances at birthday parties and holidays. He couldn’t string together simple sentences. Until he could barely mumble.
This time was the most difficult…going to see him, but never knowing what to say. He would ask about my grandmother a lot, where she was, and how much he loved her. This was exceptionally painful, and I remember leaving the facility, several times, crying. This is something that nobody can prepare you for. Despite the fact that the doctors initial said his heart would give before the disease, my grandfather was a vivacious sort of man, and God wouldn’t let him go that easily.
I watched him die. My entire family was there, too.
It was a long and slow fate that I would never wish upon anyone.
This is what’s been on my mind today as I started in on HBO’s Alzheimer’s Project. The series of documentaries deal with all aspects of the disease–family members, caretakers, victims themselves, and research in science.
Today, I finished the first section, “The Memory Loss Tapes,” which chronicles seven Alzheimer’s patients at various stages of the disease. I saw my grandfather in each example. From the woman whose driver’s license was taken away in front of her, to the woman who couldn’t recognize herself in the mirror, to the bedridden man who eventually died. It was a heart-wrenching piece of cinema verite, that I strongly recommend. I also saw pieces of myself in the second installment, “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?,” which took the perspective of young children caring for grandparents with Alzheimer’s. This one nearly brought tears to my eyes.
If you have a chance, at least watch the first film. And if you have never been affected by the disease, you will gain insight into the lives of those who have.