Like birth, death is a part of this beautiful thing we call life. Every one of us has experienced loss in one way or the other. As I’ve shared in the past, I experienced a traumatic loss of my own seven years ago when my best friend lost her battle with breast cancer. She had just turned 40.
After her death I became enraged with the monster known as cancer; my standard response to any mention of it was met with a resounding F%$^ Cancer. I believed fully that no disease could strip dignity from a human being more than that damn disease.
Until Alzheimer’s came along.
Like its bastard counterpart cancer, Alzheimer’s wreaks havoc not only on the patient, but on the loved ones and caregivers as well. There are tests and doctor visits and the inevitable roller coaster of hope that volleys with the ever-present anger. There are the good days and the bad days and the really, really awful days. There are days when you actually believe there will be light at the end of the tunnel. There are days when you pray for the pain to just end. With Alzheimer’s disease those days can transcend into years….decades even.
Yes…I said decades.
Don’t get me wrong, cancer is a bitch of a disease. It’s demoralizing and brutal and degrading on every level. At times it can even be humiliating. Even the strongest of us can struggle with the day to day responsibilities of caring for someone with cancer and watching your loved one struggle every single minute to fight it.
I really believed it couldn’t get worse than cancer. But then I watched my beloved Aunt Sandy fight like hell through 10+ years of Alzheimer’s. I watched her slowly forget the everyday chores we complain about. Then I watched her forget when to take her medicine, forget to change clothes and bathe. I watched her forget me, then forget my dad (her older brother), and tragically forget all three of her children and five grandchildren. I watched her become the disease, and slowly lose all the parts of her that made her so very special to all of us; her laughter, her kindness, her understanding, her sass. Bit by bit she lost every one of her faculties, until the vibrant woman who once went to the gym every day was nothing more than a tiny old woman, lying in a bed, staring at nothing.
I will admit that I didn’t see her as much as I should have once the disease began to fully claim her. A few years ago I took my dad to see her, and after we left and he cried all the way home I promised myself that I – that none of us – would remember her as she’d been that day; fragile beyond belief. I did see her this past July, which I’m so very grateful for. I left there that day believing it would be the last time I’d look into eyes, touch her hand…and it was. On October 8th the disease finally claimed her. I hate to admit I was relieved. Who would wish for a loved one to die? Me, apparently.
As with cancer, guilt is an annoying friend that hangs around long after it should. Like cancer, we all experience varying degrees of grief. I’d like to note that I believe the so-called “steps” of grief are BS. Seven years after the loss of my friend and I’m STILL angry. On that same note, “closure” is also BS. There is no closure in death. There’s only loss. Emptiness. Guilt. And memories. Lots and lots of memories.
Here are a few facts about this awful disease (source www.alz.org):
More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s
By 2050 this number could rise as high16 million
Alzheimer’s disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the US
It kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined
Every 66 seconds someone in the US develops the disease
1 in 3 seniors dies from Alzheimer’s or dementia
More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with the disease
In 2017, Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the nation $259 billion
Like cancer, I most likely will never see a cure for Alzheimer’s in my lifetime. Chances are, I might be one of the three who die from the disease. The statistics are terrifying.
Here are a few things we all can do to guard against this disease:
Stay physically active
Adopt a healthy diet
Stay mentally active
See "10 Ways to Love Your Brain” at www.alz.org
I will be forever grateful for my aunt. I am blessed to have been loved by her. I’m grateful for the many, many times she listened and provided encouragement. I’m so very thankful she and my son share a birthday. I feel so very, very lucky to have called her mine; my aunt, my friend, my confidant.
As I roll through menopause and forgetting things becomes an hourly event, I worry that Alzheimer’s will one day claim me…or my husband…my children. Where I once worried about cancer claiming a loved one, now I worry about Alzheimer’s stripping me or someone I love of every amount of dignity. Like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease affects us all; men, women…regardless of age…religion…or race.
To the spunky, beautiful, kind, most amazing aunt anyone could ever ask for, I thank you. I thank you for teaching me what it means to be an aunt to my own niece, and a friend too. I thank you for sharing those summer days we had together…for our two hour talks and consumption of an entire box of Wheat Thins. I thank you for your three amazing kids, who I am blessed to call not only my cousins, but my friends too. I thank you for being a wonderful baby sister to my dad, a man who misses the “you” that you once were more than anyone will ever know.