Alzheimer's Disease: A Toll for Family and Friends
It was a trip back in 2010 when the FIFA World Cup took place in South Africa. My father and brother, who are fans of football, also known as soccer in other countries, left for South Africa two days before it started. My mom and I were left at the house, which we had two weeks alone before we took on a journey for ourselves to Europe with my mom's parents.
This trip was the first time I was going to visit Europe, but it was also the first time that we were going to find something unexpected that we had no idea was going to change our lives. To give you a time reference, I was 13 years old. Old enough to start noticing things were not okay with my grandfather. I cannot fully remember what scenario was that I thought: "something is not right," but I can tell you that there were a series of events that happened throughout the trip that caused alarm bells for me, my mom, and my grandmother.
For example, we would be checking out of a hotel, the four of us. After a few minutes, when we were already heading for the car to go to the airport, he would say that we needed to check out of the hotel. We would tell him: "grandpa, we already did. You were right there with us, you said: "... You could see the confusion in his face, mixed with other emotions, like frustration, when we started to replay the conversation. He realized that in fact, we had already finished checking out. He became aware that he did have a problem. There were more instances, similar to this one, where we knew that coming home from our trip, we needed to take him to the hospital to be checked out.
After he got checked out and the doctors did a full examination they found out that the episodes of anger he had been having throughout the trips, the memory loss, were a few of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. This is a neurodegenerative disease that starts slowly and gradually worsens over time. It has a total of three stages: early, middle, and late, which in the medical field are referred to as mild, moderate, and severe. Different people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease may experience the symptoms from the three stages differently. My grandfather when he got checked out, he was already in the early/mild stages of the disease. Some common symptoms are memory lapses, like forgetting to tell us to check out and forgetting the location of everyday objects, like where he put his wallet. At this stage, the symptoms are not apparent, but being that we are his family, that we know him so well, we realized that his behavior was certainly not characteristic of him. That something had to be off.
As the disease was progressing, so were the symptoms. It got to the point where he had to take his signature away because he had no idea what he was signing. Then it got much worse. At this point, we were already at the middle/moderate stage, which is the longest stage of all. At this stage is where the person requires a greater level of care. My grandmother was his primary caregiver for as long as she was able to. Making sure he took his pills for his mood swings, making sure he had a routine so it would make it easier for his brain to enter a state of repetition instead of being confused all the time. But then it came to a point where she could no longer care for him because he had progressed to the late/severe stage. This is where she had to make the hard decisions. Getting three nurses to take care of him and his daily needs like feeding him food, bathing him, therapy exercises for his muscles as well as brain exercises to keep the brain connections firing. All these efforts, but still knowing that there is no cure and that someday the neural connections will cease to exist.
After three years of having the nurses at the house, my grandma's house, things took a turn for the worst. This started when he became sick very frequently and the equipment to make him better was not in reach because of the distance to the hospital. So, my grandmother as well as my mom, decided that what was best for him, his care, his mind, was to be in the hospital for the rest of his years. That way, he was close to the doctors and nurses and all the equipment needed to transition him into the feeding tube; his surroundings were minimized by a room, so less confusion, and if he got sick, which he did more frequently with pneumonia, or had heart attacks or other problem with organ failure, the doctors were right there to help him.
All of the ten years that he had Alzheimer's family and close friends went through many ups and downs. They slowly saw the magnificent person they knew as grandfather, husband, father, and friend be reduced to a person who they did not recognize. It was a person who no longer recognized the faces and names of their loved ones. Who struggled to form a cohesive sentence, who struggled to communicate. We all knew him as someone strong, someone you could depend on for anything, someone who could make you laugh and teach you the wonders of the world. All of that started to go away. It was being taken away from us by this horrible disease, who the only thing it seemed to want was all the beautiful memories that my grandfather made throughout his life. The memories that he made with us all.
As a family, at one point in the course of the disease, we decided that we were not going to let it ruin our amazing memories, moments with him. That we were going to remember him as the person he was before Alzheimer's took his life away.
Thank you, grandpa, for the amazing moments you gave our family, all the trips that you took us to, and all the things you taught us. We are forever grateful.