Sara Tischauser column: It's not just forgetting a memory or two
Alzheimer's. Dementia. Words many of us have heard and yes, even think we know what those words mean. I was one of those people who thought I understood the terms; that is, until my dad had Alzheimer's.
When my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I watched the progression of this disease from up close and had a front row seat to the destruction it was doing. My view on Alzheimer's changed drastically.
No longer was this just something that made people forget a name here and there. No longer was this disease an individual's problem. No longer could I deny the complete impact Alzheimer's can have not only on an individual's life but I had to admit the hurt and pain it causes so many people, me included.
I watched as my dad's health and memories deteriorated. Here was the man I had known my entire life as my dad and not only did he not know my name, he truly didn't know who I was. The worst part was the blank look in his eyes from time to time (in the early stages of the disease) when he knew he should know who I was but couldn't remember. The pain I saw in his eyes and face as he struggled to figure out why he should know me and yet he couldn't recall who I was.
This pain expanded as Alzheimer's took ahold of him and he could no longer remember himself. I watched as he slowly lost his memories and in his mind was getting younger and younger as his memories from later in life disappeared.
Seeing his pain turn to anger was something I was completely unprepared for. I began to understand this anger wasn't really aimed at anyone in particular. This anger was because in his mind he didn't know any other way to deal. He truly didn't know who I was or my family was. In his mind we were strangers and he reacted as most of us would against strangers and that is with anger, the fight to protect ourselves.
I can remember dad still being at home and trying to live a "normal" life. It seemed like as long as he was home I could deny that anything was wrong. I clearly remember the day I realized things couldn't go on the way they were. We were all sitting at the table eating dinner and my dad "forgot" how to eat. He tried putting his slice of pizza in his glass of milk because he couldn't figure out how to eat supper. It broke my heart to think this man who had run a dairy farm his whole life, now needed help with the simple task of eating.
Jump ahead to the day we ended up having to admit my dad to a nursing home. Nothing seemed more gut wrenching than having to admit we as a family could no longer take care of him. When we "left" him at the nursing home, he asked why we were leaving him there and "don't you love me anymore?" Nothing could have hurt more.
But Alzheimer's does this. It breaks you apart and makes you feel the worst you can possibly feel. Not only do you watch as this disease progresses and takes your loved one away, you then have to make difficult decisions that others will question. I still have people ask, how could you put your dad in a nursing home, why couldn't you take care of him?
I guess unless you've been in the situation, it may be hard to understand. It may be impossible for someone outside of this situation to understand the magnitude of the disease. I realize we had to put my dad in the nursing home. For his own safety it was the best option for him. He could no longer take care of himself on a day-to-day basis. He could be dangerous and violent and he couldn't help it and he couldn't be reasoned with because his brain wouldn't allow it. He was a danger to himself because unless you could watch him 100 percent of the time, we didn't know what he would do; he could wander off, decide to drive his tractor who knows where, or a variety of other things he could have decided to do.
I understand in my family's situation the nursing home was our best option. I will not say it was easy or that it got easier over the years he was there. I had to accept that it was necessary.
I learned to try and enjoy the time I did have with him. My cat Simba went to the nursing home with me and we visited dad as best we could. Some days the visit was spent with dad just cuddling Simba; that made him smile and that was okay with me. Some days he talked about years long gone but I took that as my chance to get to know this "younger man."
I guess when someone has Alzheimer's it's important to know you are not alone, but it's also important to know your situation is your own. No one can tell you what you should do or what the right answer is. I learned we as a family were the only ones who knew what was best and what had to be done. We had seen the disease take away someone we knew. We watched it rip away his memories, his livelihood, his desire to live, and we watched it take away the man we knew.
Alzheimer's is far more than forgetting names and places. It is forgetting who you are, it's forgetting everything that makes a person who they are. Alzheimer's truly takes away a person's life and takes away a part of this person's loved ones' lives.