I hold a grudge against Dr. Alzheimer and his eponymous disease. Well, perhaps not against the good doctor who was the first to characterize what he called “presenile dementia” in a 51 year old patient at the beginning of the twentieth century. But certainly against the disease that ultimately stole the minds of both of my parents. Their suffering still haunts me.
My father first showed evidence of dementia in his late 60’s. At a party on the occasion of my oldest son's bar mitzvah, a neighbor, a nurse, approached me. She had been engaged in a long conversation with my dad who had come up from Tamarac, Florida where he and mom had moved after his retirement. She seemed concerned. As I recall, she didn’t mention dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (I wouldn’t have known about either condition at the time anyway), she sadly said that our family should be prepared for many difficulties in the coming years.
And so it was. About a year later, my parents came up to Baltimore where we were living from Florida. My mother took me aside and told me that my father was acting strangely. They had always had a good relationship and she was puzzled by his recent behavior. She asked me to talk to him. Dad and I took a walk around the neighborhood. I asked what was wrong. He told me that mom was treating him like a child, always telling him what to do. I put it all down to retirement. Dad didn't have any hobbies. He was always at home without much to do, and he and mom were now always together, in close proximity. I told my mother that nothing was wrong.
Another year passed. My mother asked me to fly down to Florida. The disease had progressed. Dad had hit a car in a shopping center parking lot and had driven off. Someone had seen the incident and had reported it. A policeman had come to the house. When asked, my father had no recollection of the incident. He began stealing little items at the supermarket, stuffing them into his pockets. He was extremely forgetful, not knowing how to drive to formerly familiar locations, forgetting names and faces. Worse, he would wander away from home and not return. Mom had to send out neighbors to find him.
On the Fourth of July later that year my sister and her husband joined the rest of the family at a party. We were seated on our patio, enjoying some barbecue, and talking together. A firecracker went off in an adjacent yard. My father asked what the noise was. We told him what it was. A few minutes later, a similar sound came from the same location. My father asked the same question. We gave the same answer. This dialog was repeated four or five times every few minutes.
It was clear that something suffering from some sort of mental disability. My mother took dad to a series of doctors. The final verdict was Alzheimer’s or a similar dementia. They offered no treatment, no remedy, no cure, no hope. My mother assumed the burden of caring for dad. It was a full time job. After a while, she hired Ruby, a gentle, tall, former milkman about my father’s age to give her some respite. But she insisted that she would rather have him at home, even in his demented state, rather than put him in a nursing home.
After another two years, my mother called and told me that she couldn’t cope any longer. She said that we needed to put dad in an Alzheimer's facility. I flew down to Florida and we inspected several. It was a painful experience. Many smelled. Elderly inhabitants sat in wheelchairs; slumped over; spittle flowing from their mouths. They gazed emptily ahead; unseeing; mostly silent but occasionally suddenly moaning as if they were newly aware of their circumstance.
We picked out what seemed like the least worst nursing home. Upon arrival dad was strapped into in a wheel chair. He didn’t seem alarmed or perturbed. He grabbed the wheels and worked his way around the room. A smile lit his face. This was a new toy and he was enjoying the ride. That reaction troubles me to this day. How a once proud, intelligent, capable, man could be reduced to behaving like a child saddens me to the point of tears.
Within a couple of months, my father passed away. It wasn’t clear why. Except for his mental condition, his health was quite good. Even near the end, the nursing home complained that he was forever pinching the nurses and racing his chair about. My mother thought that the home was negligent, but for what ever the reason his death avoided the terrible consequences that mark the end point of the disease.
This next part of the story has a semi-happy ending. Ruby, it turned out, had a crush on my mother. And within a year or so after my father’s passing, my mother returned the favor. Mom always claimed that my father was the “love of her life”, and that she couldn’t imagine finding someone that she cared for as much. But Ruby, a wonderful man, a real mensch, afforded her a second great romance. She was very lucky. Not many get two such chances. They lived together until she too contracted dementia. But that’s a story for the next post.