Sunday, November 23, 2014

A World Without Alzheimer's

Yesterday was the four year mark of my grandmom's death.

I talk a lot about my Aunt Joyce's battle with cancer, but I tend to not share as much about my grandmom. Not because I didn't care about her as much, but it is a crappier situation for me to recall. Not that losing Aunt Joyce to breast cancer wasn't horrible... she just always carried on, was optimistic, and made it seem like nothing was wrong until the last two weeks of her life, honestly.

My grandmom, on the other hand, had Alzheimer's disease. For those of you who don't know, Alzheimer's is a form of dementia. A buildup of proteins in the brain cause plaques and tangles to damage the brain cells. An early sign is difficulty remembering newly learned information and recent conversations and events. It gets worse over time and leads to serious behavioral changes and confusion, and eventually affects the ability to do anything for yourself. You don't know where you are, or when you are, or WHO you are, for that matter. You don't recognize your family and friends. You just... aren't YOU anymore.

I remember the first time I realized that something was really wrong with Grandmom. I was watching TV one night with my parents, sister, and grandmom. I don't think she was living with us yet at this time, but she stayed at our house for several days in a row pretty often. I forget what prompted this to happen, but she started asking really weird questions about people, and where we were. It became apparent that she had no clue why she was there and who she was with. She asked who I was. She started getting very agitated and upset, and we tried to calm her down, but she just did not know what was going on at all. Think old lady Allie in The Notebook, when she remembers Noah for a minute, then all of a sudden forgets who he is. This was my first experience with my grandmom acting like that.

She moved in with us for awhile. I would keep an eye on her after school if my mom had things to do and my dad was at work. I called it grandmomsitting. We didn't want her to wander away down the street, or leave the stove on, or do something else completely out of character. Kristin, Lauren Ann, and my boyfriend at the time, Drew, would come over to hang out. Grandmom started forgetting who they were. I'm pretty sure it got to the point where Drew was my husband, Lauren was my sister, and Kristin was my friend Margarita. We weren't trying to mess with her, really we weren't. It just got to the point where it was very upsetting to me when she would ask who we were. I had to do something to make us laugh so I didn't cry.

Eventually, she needed 24/7 care. She moved to a long-term care unit in a nursing home. She didn't remember any of us, she never remembered us visiting, she didn't remember my mom going there every single day to be with her. She didn't remember where she was anymore or what day it was. She started to speak a lot of Italian. She asked a lot about my Grandpop, who hasn't been alive since the 1970s. There were some strokes and a lot of hospital visits thrown in there. At the end of her life, she was bedridden and wasn't really saying much at all.

She was the strongest woman I have ever known. She lived in an orphanage in Italy as a child, survived a bombing in World War II (she had a really cool scar on her arm from being stitched up in a bomb shelter), immigrated to the U.S., and raised two boys while working her ass off for her entire life. So I really, REALLY hate that she had Alzheimer's, because it is just the most unfair disease for someone like her to get.

Despite these circumstances, I have so many more good memories of my grandmom than bad. She would take Linny and I for walks around her apartment complex to see the fish pond and flowers. She always had those strawberry hard candies that melt in your mouth in a candy dish in her apartment. She loved to garden. She would sit outside and watch us play while she tended the flowers and swept the sidewalk with a broom (yes, she literally would walk down the street with a broom). All the neighbors knew her and loved her. She taught us how to play card games and told us her life stories... the same stories over and over... but I didn't even mind, because her life was so damn interesting. The little bit of Italian I do know, I learned from her. Every morning: "Buongiorno, Nonna! Come stai?" Do I even need to mention her cooking and Christmas Eve? No, I do not, because everyone knows Italian grandmothers are the best cooks. Our family traditions would not exist without her.

I am sharing this story to hopefully bring some awareness about Alzheimer's disease. Lots of people hear about it, but I don't think a lot of people truly understand the horror of this disease. You can be a completely healthy person, but you have completely lost your mind. Your body deteriorates last. The amount of care and attention needed for the person suffering is impossible for any family to take on, physically and mentally.

There is no cure.

If you are ever doing a fundraiser for a school or work event, please consider raising money for the Alzheimer's Association. This disease needs more attention. Visit them at to learn more about Alzheimer's disease and how you can help.

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