My Grandpa’s Memory
My grandpa always had questions.
“Where do you go to school?” he would ask.
“Rutgers,” I would answer.
He would light up, saying, “My son went to Rutgers!” He was talking about my dad.
I would tell him about the classes I was taking and what it was like to live in a dorm and eat in a dining hall.
He told me how exciting it all sounded, and then he would ask, “So where do you go to school?” and we could cycle around like this for hours.
My grandpa had Alzheimer’s disease for as long as I can remember. He only ever called me by my name once, otherwise referring to me as “Gary’s daughter.” He spent a lot of time asking the same questions and making the same arguments, only to forget it all and start again the next day, or the next hour, or the next minute. He had a particular tendency to drive to a store, do his shopping, and then leave and forget what his car looked like. He would insist that his car had been stolen, but it was always where he left it. On one occasion, he forgot that he had driven his car to the store at all, and began a thirty minute walk home all by himself, only to be picked up by a family friend who had been driving by and spotted him.
Alzheimer’s disease is just one form of dementia, a disorder known to impact those diagnosed with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral deterioration. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 75% of those with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. The CDC reports that Alzheimer’s “can be distinguished from other forms of dementia by its insidious and progressive course.” Alzheimer’s is notorious for stealing the memories of those affected, which include an estimated 5.5 million Americans, according the Alzheimer’s Association. The CDC estimates that this number will reach about 14 million by 2050. This is particularly troubling because at this time, there is no cure.
There have been developments in treatments for symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but there is no medication to slow the progression of the disease, the CDC says. Alzheimer’s is the only disease in the top ten causes of death that cannot be cured, slowed, or prevented, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The Alzheimer’s Association says that instead, the focus is put on increasing the quality of life for those diagnosed. It is currently the sixth leading cause of death, but while other top ten diseases have seen a decrease in death rates, deaths from Alzheimer’s have only increased, the Alzheimer’s Association says. Most people are expected to live between four to eight years after diagnosis, with very few living as long as 20, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
While Alzheimer’s is a difficult diagnosis for anyone, there is a particular focus on the effect on family members of those diagnosed. As patients become more sick, caregivers must assist in everyday practices, like helping with getting dressed and eating, while also coping with the mental loss of their loved ones. Alzheimer’s patients do not just suffer physically, but also begin to forget the people and places around them. Caregivers spend a great deal of time physically helping their sick family members, while also reminding them about basic details of their lives. The National Institute on Aging describes caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s as having high physical, emotional, and financial costs, and recommends joining a support group in order to receive encouragement from other caregivers.
In my grandpa’s final months, he never forgot his three children (my dad, aunt, and uncle); however, his questions about friends who had passed, places from their childhoods, and grandbabies who were no longer babies were incredibly taxing. Having to constantly remind someone about some of the most cherished memories of your own life is unimaginably difficult. I will say, however, that there were some funny moments as well, like the time he asked me if my mom was in fact my mom, or actually my sister. My mom certainly liked that one.
Alzheimer’s finally took my grandpa away from us in March of 2015, but it had been slowly taking him for years before then. In the end, he lost many of his life memories. Today, I know him best from my own memories.