Weighty issues: Alzheimer’s and Dementia

I am very excited to expand on my Weighty Issue column to include other health and wellness topics. Some of the topics will range from diabetes to depression to celiac sprue and so forth. Whatever the case, I would like to include similar experiences relating to that topics. I hope that it will also inspire and/or learn something different (perhaps a lifestyle change — if needed) by opening your mind and your heart.

Face it, we all get older … some people age gracefully like “age is just a number.” Or me, I’m 46 and I’ve had gray hair since my 20s. Boxed hair coloring is my friend. My sister was given a “cemetery themed cake.” She didn’t think that it was amusing, at all, on her 30th birthday.

For some people, age comes at a price; millions of Americans suffer from Dementia and Alzheimer’s, a sad and frightening disease that can affect cognitive skills, emotions (agitation etc.), motor coordination, memory loss and concentration (are just some associating symptoms). For family and friends, it is just as crippling. You may have felt like you’ve lost your loved ones. They may not recognize you anymore; it is painful and hard to bear.

I know this first hand; dementia doesn’t care about your background or financial status or even race. My grandma had dementia as well as her siblings. Grandma was a pillar of strength, kindness, humor and love. She had an ornery streak and common sense (despite not finishing school). Her formidable years were spent on a farm in Lowell. She spoke German (including the bad words) until the English language was more integrated into the home.

Grandma became a grand matriarch of her family. She was an avid seamstress (her quilts were intricately made), cook and baker. On Christmas holidays, we made lemon crackers (a cookie that practically weighed 20 pounds and served as hockey pucks for the NHL). We also made pffernusse (an awesome and most favorite spice cookie). The fruitcake (dad’s favorite) had enough whiskey to fuel 10 cars.

Well needless to say that in many years that followed, grandma began to show the dreaded symptoms of dementia. It began as forgetfulness; we all do this — I even left the cereal box in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard. She developed more of a quiet tone and became reserved. She became worse like leaving appliances on — eventually having someone with her around the clock (she coined the caretakers as “the patrol”). She also had lack of concentration, her gait was off and she developed occasional belligerence. She never exhibited that in my younger years. One time, I was visiting grandma; I had to leave for an appointment. She actually raised her voice and became agitated that I was going to leave.

Of course, with her dementia, she repeated stories which was really no trouble. Our ornery family, however, playfully joked that for birthday’s and Christmas — we could re-wrap gifts and get away with it. Humor can definitely be warranted in times of weariness or trouble.

Other times her demeanor was quite different, she had moments of clarity. As usual, I called grandma and filled her in on certain things in life. At one point, I told her about my volunteer work; she surprised me and said, “I know you enjoy doing that.” In her own way, grandma WAS still there.

Grandma passed away at age 100. She lived a goof life. I miss her no matter what her condition was like. Dementia is definitely crippling and strikes at the very heart of the family. Just a suggestion; call often, visit more and speak to them (even if it’s the hundredth time to hear the story) as if it’s the first time.

I wrote a poem (don’t gag about another poem) to sum up my feelings of the matter. Here is goes: “The first time I knew, my heart was broken and blue. My grandmother once vibrant and ‘there,’ became forgetful with a blank stare. She always used to remember my name; now, no more and it’s not the same. I found out her siblings also had the crippling disease, ‘Lord,’ I prayed ‘please help her from this brain ‘freeze.’ She didn’t get better; in fact worse, in fact worse, against this horrible curse. So, I talk to her like the first time; gentle, sweet and caring with every word to her, I would chime.” Until next time …

Casi Stewart can be reached at casichilstew@yahoo.com. A Weighty Issue appears monthly on Life.