Imagine waking up and not being able to remember.
At first, it might start off with the little things. Forgetting the milk on your grocery list or your neighbour’s fall get-together. But as time goes on, you start to lose more of the more noticeable things. Your children’s birthdays. The day you got married. Your partner’s name. Then, you start to lose track of your more basic tasks, such as remembering the last time you showered, the expiry dates on the food in the fridge or changing your clothes. And while this is all happening, you wonder “Why me? Why am I forgetting?” You might even start to feel angry and lose your temper at the slightest misunderstanding. Not because you’re particularly angry at what the individual might have done or said, but simply because you cannot understand or remember why they are doing it. But, as time goes on, the anger fades and instead, is replaced with silence. Not because you don’t want to talk, but because you have literally lost the capacity to put your thoughts into words. And, when the silence begins, your loved ones almost wish the anger and the frustration would come back because they know that you’re slipping away. Because the silence is the last thing before the mind completely shuts down.
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common ailments of the 21st century. When we think of Alzheimer’s, we often characterize it as only affecting the very old. However, early onset Alzheimer’s is extremely prevalent in adults ranging from 40-60 years old, making the disease not only restricted to the very elderly and meek, but also common among many, otherwise healthy middle-aged adults. Often the symptoms start off very mild and are unnoticeable among the affected individuals’ loved ones, co-workers and close friends. In most cases, it’s just passed off as forgetfulness or nerves; however, it’s often completely brushed off by the affected individual to the point where it’s too late for them to get the treatment that enables them to lead a comfortable, independent life for as long as possible.
Have you ever visited a long-term care centre? A nursing home or even, a retirement village? I have, and I can tell you one thing, even though these people are forgetting things, they hold onto some memories with every fibre of their being. Scrawled little notes by their bedside with chicken scratch writing, illegible to everyone but the writer. Post-it notes hung up by their beds with reminders, written by the nurse for those who have lost the ability to write. And in the saddest and most advanced cases–when the silence sets in–hand gestures and long gazes serve as their means of communication.
What memories do they hold onto, you may ask? It differs for every individual, but I can tell you one thing that is uniform among these sufferers. Every memory that they hold onto has meaning. There’s a reason why they hold on so tight and get angry when they cannot remember–it’s because it had meaning and evoked a powerful emotion in them that they have never forgotten.
In popular fiction, Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice documents the struggles and life of a 50-year-old neuroscience professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s. In the book, the middle-aged Alice struggles to remember appointments, meetings with colleagues and deadlines but as the disease progresses, she forgets more important things, such as the names of her children and husband. Although fictional, it provides an extremely realistic portrayal of the disease, as forgetting more important and significant information represents a turning point in the development of Alzheimer’s. However, even though she begins to forget these important dates, Alice programs the birthdays and names of her children, her name and her husbands name into her phone so she will never forget them. Concurrently, other individuals lacking the technological means that Alice possessed will go to similar measures: writing important information on notepads, in letters to themselves on their fridge and, even more difficult, writing reminders in a hieroglyphic or almost gibberish letter formation that’s near impossible to understand.
But even though these individuals might not remember in their brains as their mental capacity begins to wane, they continue to remember in their heart. Going through my grandfathers’ possessions after his death, I found a notepad where he wrote down every date he had to remember: doctors appointments, birthdays and even, his name and birthdate. But, when you turned over the pad when the paper ended, circled in big bold letters and written three times was his wife’s name, as well as my mother’s.
So, even if you’re frustrated with the constant forgetfulness, absent-mindedness or straight-up anger that a friend, family member or partner displays when affected with Alzheimer’s, remember that underneath the disease, there’s the same love that they’ve always had for you. Even though it might not always be apparent or obvious, it’s stored somewhere that doesn’t forget or time out: in their heart.
And in the end, the heart always wins.
Want more information about Alzheimer’s disease? Read ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE: How to prevent one of the fastest-growing threats to American health and visit www.alz.org.
image: David Niblack, Imagebase.net. (Creative Commons BY)