I don’t remember exactly when I realized that something was happening with my grandfather – or if I ever really knew what was happening before he passed away in 2006.
Looking back, I wish I had cherished those times I had with him. Perhaps had I known what the future was to bring, I could have made a greater attempt to retain memories of the times my grandfather and I spent together – memories that my grandfather was destined to forget. I wish I would’ve been able to pick up on the fact that him not remembering who I was indicated a sign of something much graver than a temporary memory lapse.
There’s no more painful feeling than thinking you could have done more.
On today’s front page, we have a story that touches on the impacts of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia around the country and in Texas. It’s also about an area group that attempts to counteract the effects on those suffering from the disease and their caretakers. It’s an issue that hits far too close to home for me.
According to an annual report from the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.8 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, and that number is projected to reach more than 14 million by 2050.
Basically, one person per minute develops the disease, and one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, according to the report.
My parents tell me they first noticed early signs of Alzheimer’s in my grandfather in 2000, when I was 8 years old.
My grandfather was the owner and sole proprietor of Kurt’s Kabinet Shop where, for 45 years, he built up a sterling reputation for his cabinet-building craftsmanship. But one day, my father told me, my grandfather came and told my grandmother he was unable to finish up work on a small cabinet because he couldn’t remember how to even begin the job.
Ordinarily my father – who spent many summers working in that shop – said his father could finish such a job in an afternoon. But this time, he couldn’t get things to come together.
Those were the first signs of what would only worsen.
There were those times my grandfather would awake in the middle of the night thinking there had been people in the house – when none were there – and couldn’t be calmed down. It got to the point where my grandmother didn’t have the strength to take care of him anymore.
According to my father, there eventually came a time when my grandfather did not remember or recognize my father. My dad told me that on one occasion, he and his father were sitting on the front porch of their home and, in a brief moment of clarity, my grandfather looked at him and said, “This is not how a person should have to live.”
“When I would go visit him at the nursing home, I’d walk up to him and ask him how his day was,” my father said. “He would always have a big smile on his face, but he had no idea who I was.”
Hearing that recollection is more painful than words can describe. I know I likely couldn’t have done much at my age, but nobody likes seeing their loved ones forced to deal with that level of mental anguish.
I don’t have children of my own yet. If and when I do, I can’t imagine not remembering their names. I have friends who have children. Those children have become their world, and on the flip side, the children view their parents as superheroes.
As a child, I remember thinking my parents could do no wrong. To this day, I know I can count on them if I’m in a bind, and the love between us still knows no bounds.
I know how much my father looked up to his dad, and how much I look up to my own. How would it feel if your mother or father suddenly told you they don’t know who you are?
One of the things my dad and grandfather had in common was a love of hunting, which they did every year. But as my grandfather got worse, not even those memories struck a chord.
“You have all these memories, and remember all these things about them,” my father said. “I spent all my time knowing and remembering who he was, knowing the whole time he didn’t remember who I was at all.”
You might at first think it’s a joke. The first time I recall my grandfather struggling to remember who I was, I was still in grade school. I processed it as, “Man, that’s weird,” before running off and not thinking much of it.
What young boy would believe that someone who they see multiple times a year wouldn’t remember them? Wouldn’t remember those times looking through his collection of hunting caps in the hallway, or sneakily swiping food off your plate before feigning innocence?
You think those types of memories will be etched in everyone’s mind forever. Unfortunately, for too many, the reality is that those memories slowly fade away as if they never happened. And as those cherished memories slowly dim, they struggle to retain remnants of their life, trying to hold onto every last memory.
I know now that my grandfather’s early memory lapses were no laughing matter. My grandfather passed away in December 2006 from what the Alzheimer’s Association said is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
What’s more, I never realized the emotional and physical toll the disease can take – not just on the person suffering, but those taking care of them.
More than 16 million people in the U.S. provide unpaid care for those living with some form of the disease.
In my grandfather’s case, those care-taking responsibilities were shared initially by my grandmother, uncle and aunt. As his disease progressed, however, the family was finally forced to enlist the services of a specialized care facility.
“The worst thing is that nobody knows what it’s like to be an Alzheimer’s patient. Nobody knows what it’s like inside of a person’s head who is experiencing that,” my father said. “One of the most important things to an elderly person are their memories. Memories define who you are. They’re your life. When you’re older, that’s one of the things most critical to allowing a person to remain happy. I can’t imagine not knowing your son or daughter anymore.”
Upon talking to my dad this weekend, I finally realized the mental, physical and emotional toll the whole progression had to have taken on him and his family.
So cherish the time you have with your loved ones. Soak up each moment, no matter how fleeting or seemingly insignificant, because you never know how long that memory will be there for them.