Alzheimer’s — It Affects All of Us

A friend has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

It’s not the first time that someone close to me has received that diagnosis. There have been other friends. An uncle and my own mother.

Frankly, I haven’t noticed the signs in my friend. She dresses beautifully, carries on full conversations with me, travels with her husband. We go out to dinner, take walks.

Our husbands are friends, too. In fact, they were friends before we were. Maybe they talk about her illness, share secrets, and we don’t know about it.

And I don’t know what it must be like to be the spouse. You’re the first to notice differences, while the rest of us pay little heed.

No, those of us on the outside never notice the first signs.

The first time the uncle puts his catsup on the outside of the hamburger bun. Or the sugar on top of the plastic cap on the coffee cup.

The first time he can’t figure out how to mow the lawn. Or won’t go to the bathroom alone.

When the friend rides his snowmobile in summer. Approaches dangerous animals. Or, simply, appears to have had too much beer.

Refuses to go to the bathroom alone. Constantly wonders where the bathroom is. Or, later, urinates on himself.

When mother tries to ride her wheelchair down the stairs. Progresses to the symptoms most often expressed at sunset.

When she tells you it’s 1935 and it’s she’s been riding the bus with her friend Florence. Who’s been dead for years.

Or when she forgets who she is and who you are. Who I am.

I’m not alone. You, too, have probably had a friend or relative with Alzheimer’s.

I say that, because some 4 million Americans–some 130,000 in Masssachusetts--have Alzheimer’s or a related disorder.

Statistically, there are 867 people in Westfield with the disease. Thirteen in Montgomery, 105 in Southwick, 1,135 in Holyoke, 13 in Blandford. Multiply that by our 351 cities and towns, and 50 other states.

One in ten of people over 65 and almost half of those over 85 have Alzheimer’s.

And, something few people realize, all people with Down Syndrome show the neuropathology of Alzheimer’s by about age 35.

You an read books about it, get information from the Alzheimer’s Association (800/548-2111), join a support group, or register with the Safe Return program, the national wanderers’ alert system.

But, it is not an easy disease to face.

The Association, founded two decades ago, points out that Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease of the brain for which there currently is no cure.

Simply, people slowly lose their abilities to remember, to think, to communicate, and to care for themselves.

It is the fourth leading cause of death among adults, who generally live 8 to 10 years after the onset of symptoms. Some, however, survive for 20 or more years.

Most live at home, cared for by relatives and friends.

But others–more than half of all nursing home residents have Alzheimer’s or other dementia–must be cared for outside the home. Average yearly cost nationally, $45,000. In Massachusetts, $70,000.

There is no cure. Yet. A lot of research is being conducted, genes examined, drugs tested.

I hope they hurry.

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