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The Fading Light

Sunday, January 02, 2011
This year, as last year, I was able to visit my extended family in New Hampshire for Christmas, escaping home just in time to beat the fierce Nor'easter that blew in. Among other family member, my grandmom - my mother's mother - was there, having been escorted up by my aunt.

I wrote about her two years ago when I was in New Hampshire. Several years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. While it was caught early, the effects are merely advancing more slowly and, though I've seen her every six to twelve months or so (she lives in North Carolina and I live in Oregon), her symptoms seemed more pronounced this time.

Over the past several years her life has changed dramatically. Though my granddad died over 20 years ago, my grandmom has remained independent. Shortly after being diagnosed, she had to stop driving, which was a big impact, though not as big as having to leave her home. As far back as I can remember she's lived in the same modest home in southern North Carolina; my memories of visiting her (and my granddad) have always been at that house. She's now had to move out of it. Though she still owns it (and the car that's parked there), her permanent address is at a group facility a couple miles away where she has a very small but delightfully cozy room of her own.

My aunt and I had a chance to talk about her at length before the end of my trip. There were some symptoms that were distressing. Aside from the memory loss (which we'd almost gotten used to), perhaps most alarming was the inability to find a comb and brush sitting on the table, alone, next to her. She just couldn't identify them. I'd never heard it said before, but it makes sense now: Alzheimer's isn't forgetting where your car is are, it's forgetting what your car keys do. (More examples here.) My aunt was able to bring up more examples of the cognitive breakdown that's happening to her. While she can still remember long-ago events and ritualized actions, she has difficulty interacting with new or unfamiliar environments - or, now, environments she's visited dozens of times over the past 20 years.

Perhaps the most startling change was my own realization: this is something she'll never beat. Nobody gets over Alzheimer's. There are no survivors. While some medications help, it's just a matter of how much we can slow the inexorable march through her mind of this disease. Every time I see my grandmom, she's going to be worse.

By her own admissions, my grandmom has good days and bad days. There are days she's able to interact with her friends at her new home and days that she spends making cards for overseas troops. But there are days where, as she puts it, "she probably shouldn't have gotten out of bed". Those are days where she's confused and surprised and, though she hides it well, forced to roll with constantly unfamiliar circumstances.

On my flight back west - and since then - I've felt unusually reflective. I love my grandmom. She's physically healthy. How long will it be, however, until she's unable to recognize me? Even this past Christmas, she was surprised that I was there some mornings. Did she know who I was?

And then there's my own self-interest. What if this happens to me? What if, when I'm in my 70s (presuming I make it there), I'm no longer able to function as an independent adult? What if my mind breaks down? What if I wake up and, every day, I'm surprised by where I am and confused as to what's going on around me? For the first time in my life, I've found myself afraid of growing old. Some research suggests that genetics plays a part in who will get Alzheimer's disease. Is that my future?


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