I will probably will be the first to admit that I was surprised that Alzheimer’s disease is considered a mental illness. If you do your research, there’s a whole list of mental health conditions and Alzheimer’s made the list. I could understand if it was bulimia or anorexia because those are usually attributed depression and anxiety. But Alzheimer’s? It is. My fore way into the arms of Alzheimer’s began in 1999. I’ll never forget the moment when that disease entered my life.
My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and in the beginning, I just assumed that this was a natural form of aging and didn’t think very much of it. My grandparents had moved out of their house in New Berlin after many decades there, and move to an assisted living center. They both were getting too old maintain a ranch style home complete with a large yard and a swing set and a garden, too. So, the entire family helped make the transition smoother for my grandparents by sorting through all of their furniture and calling dibs on who was getting what and what was going to Goodwill. I remember on a couple of occasions when my grandmother would ask my grandfather the same question over and over for the millionth time. He always answered her question sounding more irritated every time. Who doesn’t get irritated when someone asks you the same question over and over?
Again, we didn’t think it was serious until after they began living in the assisted living center. I remember visiting them on the weekends and I overheard my grandfather tell his son (my father) that his mother (my grandmother) keeps forgetting things and keeps asking the same question over and over again. My dad said that she may need to see someone because even he noticed that her memory was getting pretty bad.
I noticed it more frequently during my last years in high school. I remember she would ask me if I was in school or if I was still working. I told her: “Grandma, I’m still in school and I haven’t worked anywhere just yet.” Again, I repeated this phrase numerous times over the course of the weekend. She even forgot my name, too.
It wasn’t until 2001, she got the official diagnosis: Alzheimer’s Disease. I remember saying: “What’s that? Where did she pick that up from?” I honestly don’t know if that was hereditary (probably), but all I remember was that her mother died when I was only 10 and she had a massive stroke. My dad was surprised because he along with his siblings couldn’t think of anyone who had this disease on their side of the family. It turns out that one relative did have Alzheimer’s years before and at the time, it was called “hardening of the arteries.”
Well, if you’re familiar with Alzheimer’s you know that this is a serious and life threatening condition. This disease is caused by dementia and is a progressive life threatening illness that still has NO cure for. Most people who get diagnosed can live for several years even up to 20 years. Most people get the diagnosis around the age of 65 and up and some get early on set Alzheimer’s at a younger age. My grandmother was 75 (almost 76) when she was diagnosed. She died in 2007 at 82 (two and half months shy of her 83rd birthday).
For the first two years (1999-2001), she was in the early stages where: she would forget things like names, constantly misplacing everything, and couldn’t concentrate. My grandmother used to garden and grow her own vegetables. She was a fantastic cook and quite the entertainer at home. She never drove, but always made it to Sunday mass and volunteered at the local church. There are so many wonderful memories that all of us family members have (and will always have) and we watched those memories quickly disintegrate in a flash.
The Alzheimer’s was like a progressive disease like terminal cancer. It ate her away at her every single day. Every time, the entire family visited her, she was not herself. This disease deteriorated her mind, destroyed this sweet person that I loved and ultimately, killed her. Seven years, went by really fast and that’s how long it took to end her life on this earth. Seven years. Unbelievable.
When my grandfather died on July 4, 2003, (2 years after her diagnosis) life went straight to hell. My grandfather was everything to her. He was her soul mate. It was kismet. They represented what it means to be a “happily married couple”. Sure, they had their share of ups and downs, but they really set the example of what it takes to make a marriage work. My grandparents met before WWII. She was literally the girl next door. She lived next door to my grandfather. They met and fell in love. He went off to serve his country in WWII and almost died of pneumonia. He wasn’t close to the Battle of the Bulge or Normandy, but could’ve been. I was amazed that he got home and later married my grandmother.
They had six children (five boys and one girl). My dad was the middle son. And they were married for almost 58 years until his death. The morning of his death, he woke up with chest pains and looked over at my grandmother and kissed her one last time. He stumbled over to the wall that had a huge collage of pictures of their children, grandchildren, and other relatives; and smiled at every picture. He said: “Good bye, I love you all.” He made it to the chair where he suffered a fatal heart attack at 5 AM. I will never forget the call from my uncle saying that Grandpa was gone. The funeral service was held on July 8th and it was a stormy day, but still very beautiful. At the graveyard, he was honored with a 21 gun salute, an American flag, and a personal thank you from former president George W. Bush. I was speechless. Everyone was so broken hearted and so grateful for his service, but it made things worse for my grandmother.
After my grandfather passed, my grandmother always asked: “Where’s Lloyd?” “Where is he?” Lloyd was his name. And because of her Alzheimer’s, it made it difficult for her to understand that he was gone. To have to tell someone with Alzheimer’s that your beloved husband is dead is no easy task. My father would tear up whenever she asked him that. After that point, she became worse and worse. I would see her and she wouldn’t even know who anyone was anymore. Her only daughter would visit almost everyday and my grandmother would say: “Who are you?” In her heart, she knew it was her daughter, but in her mind, she was looking at a complete stranger. That’s what Alzheimer’s does to ones mind. You have no idea just how heartbreaking it is to see someone living with that.
There were other patients in the geriatric ward with her that had the same disease. I remember one guy was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s and he was walking aimlessly throughout the building and was grunting. He couldn’t speak a word. He didn’t have the ability anymore to speak nor recognize his own face. I was terrified that would be my grandmother in a short time. My family were one of the few regulars at the assisted living center and the doctors and nurses knew my family better than other patients’ families. It was sad and also sickening to not visit family in a place like a mental hospital or an assisted living center. We all go to the hospital for help, right? Why should those places be any different?
In 2007, my grandmother’s health deteriorated so bad, that in the final months and days, she was restrained in her bed. She couldn’t get out of bed. She couldn’t talk. She was not mobile. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want to accept the fact that her battle was over. The clock was ticking. God was saying: “Your time is up and you’re coming home.” One week before she died, my dad and I visited her and I remember watching my dad. He told me that if he ever had Alzheimer’s, he said to kill him. I’m sure he was just saying that out of frustration and pain, but I can’t fathom what will happen if he does get it. He’s 61 now and his mind is sharp, but I really don’t know who’s going to be the next one in the family to get it. My grandmother was called to Heaven on September 7, 2007 and I remember that it didn’t hit me until the day of the funeral. When you lose someone, it’s usually denial or disbelief at first, then anger and sadness. But it’s different for everyone. I was in disbelief and quickly moved right up to pure sadness when I went up to her in the casket.
The woman in the casket looked like my grandmother. She looked so peaceful and seemed like she was just dreaming a great dream about family. But when I bent over to kiss her good bye for the last time, it really hit me. Her body was stiff and ice cold. Throughout the service, I watched everyone that knew my grandmother and watched my entire family, too. Everyone was shocked and so shattered. I’ve never seen my father cry. The only times that I’ve seen my father cry are when both of his parents died also when other family members died but that’s pretty much it. I couldn’t even fathom what was going through my dad’s mind at the time. He lost both parents four years apart from each other. The stress of parents so unexpectedly is rough on anyone. I wouldn’t recommend it on anyone. Life is like a roller coaster ride: so many twists and turns.
Moving on from and accepting the new norm wasn’t easy at all. In 2008, my father lost his job because of the recession. Talk about drama. He loses his parents, now his job and then more tragedy. Shortly before he got his job in Houston, he lost his eldest brother unexpectedly to a heart attack. His eldest brother was a Vietnam veteran, who served his country, and lived a full life with his wife and two kids. Life was getting out of control. The pain of losing loved ones and being unemployed for an entire year was more than some can handle. But my dad is like me: we’re tough. Whatever happens, good or bad, you accept it and you move on. There’s nothing you can do when bad things happen. It’s life and you can’t change or erase anything if you wanted to. But always remember that tomorrow is a brand new day and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.