“The only good thing about it is that you eventually don’t remember you have it.” That’s what I’ve jokingly told several patients over the years as we have discussed Alzheimer’s dementia. Many times we all attempt to make light of subjects that we find just too painful or uncomfortable to discuss without some humor mixed into it so it is not so disheartening. When seeing someone with memory loss who is afraid and they know they are losing their memory, it does sometimes help to get a few laughs when asking if they remembered to take their medication that helps them remember. This is one disease that most people fear getting, but we really have no control over it and in those cases it is better to reject fear and accept what we cannot control or prevent with any certainty. Researchers are desperately trying to find a way to control it better and prevent it somehow, but there is still not a lot more available now than it was a decade ago. More information is available and new drugs are being tested although it is not yielding any practical improvements in treatment or definite means of prevention yet.
I have been practicing medicine long enough now that I have had the privilege of getting to know several patients over the years who used to have all of their mental faculties and I’ve sadly watched as Alzheimer’s dementia has been diagnosed while the accompanying slow decline in mental function ensues. A recent patient came in for follow up with her daughter and after we addressed the concerns of that visit, I looked into her eyes and could see a glimmer of who I used to know as such a caring, vivacious person. Her look was one in which she appeared to mildly strain to almost remember some things of recent years, but was resigned to not knowing and being confused about her current state. I gave her a big hug to let her know it was okay and that she was loved anyway; she had a smile then and it was like a small reminder went off in her mind. I can remember back just a few years ago when I regularly was the recipient of her wonderful jellies each year; I still have some of it and now treasure it each time I open one of those small jars because I know I will not get them anymore from her.
Even though it is difficult to see these patients succumb to the awful ravages of dementia, it is even more difficult, if not being actually torturous, for the children and/or spouse who care for them. Most caretakers end up in the hospital themselves due to such great stress upon them during the years of time it takes to care for their loved ones whom they eventually do not know anymore. They live for those short moments when some recollection occurs and they can relate to one another like they used to do, but then those short flashes of what used to be disappear completely and it is like taking care of a stranger to them again. For those of you who have dealt with this, you certainly know about how devastating this disease really is to everyone involved. For those who know of someone who is trying to care for someone who has Alzheimer’s dementia, I encourage you to take some time to reach out to them and offer to help them have a day off of their caretaking role so they can do something they might need to do, or to just get some rest. Another often neglected thing nowadays is to drop by for some coffee or tea so you can sit with them and just listen. I can guarantee they probably could use someone to talk with intelligently and to just know that you care about them.
Let us give thanks while we can for when we are healthy and able to work because the time will come too soon for all of us when we cannot. A strong community is one that is thankful and one that will reach out to help each other, especially those who are the most vulnerable. May God bless you during this Thanksgiving season.