ERROL CASTENS: Toward a world without Alzheimer's

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

Wednesday will be observed as Alzheimer’s Action Day, with a focus on awareness of the disease, its symptoms, how it affects individuals and families, and boosting research efforts toward wiping out Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of long-term brain deterioration, but dementia of any sort typically robs people of themselves gradually, often over years. It may begin with forgetfulness before progressing to poor judgment, inability to do familiar tasks and increasing memory loss. In time it can advance to the inability to recognize loved ones, even one’s own existence.
In the early stages of dementia, short-term memory suffers, but stories of one’s youth and young-adult life remain detailed.
My dad, who now lives at the Veterans Home in Oxford, struggles to find the right words sometimes – as much from a stroke last year as from the Alzheimer’s he was diagnosed with – but when words come in sufficient quantity, he can tell how much more fearsome the turbulent North Atlantic was during World War II than were kamikazes.
He remembers loading up on oranges as a boy when a fruit truck overturned on the route he took to school, and the fist-sized wad of bubble gum that caused his chair to rise with him when he stood for a solo during a high school band concert.
Daddy remembers his first date with Mama, which included her first-ever driving lesson. He likes to recall James Rivers’ hay-hauling career, which ended because James wanted to ride between bales.
Sometimes just the start of a joke, or just the punchline, will come to him, or he’ll recall just enough of an incident that’s woven into our family’s fabric that I can help fill in the rest.
Some dementia-distorted thoughts are unpleasant: One man at the Veterans Home is often seeking nonexistent keys so he can escape the place in a nonexistent truck. When the obsessions are kinder, the wheelchair-bound man often makes plans for me to plow the hillside outside his room so he can plant watermelons next spring.
Despite its griefs, sometimes dementia provides opportunities for a laugh.
A few nights ago I had just bade my dad goodnight and headed toward the front entrance. As I rounded the nurses’ station, only one veteran was still in the hallway. This 93-year-old was not quite asleep in his wheelchair as I called him by name to get his attention, then wished him a good night and said I’d probably see him the next day.
The old gentleman looked first at me and then at his surroundings, shook his head slowly back and forth and said, “You know, son, sometimes I wish I’d never taken this job.”
For more information on Alzheimer’s and what you can do to help, visit www.alz.org.
Errol Castens is the Oxford Bureau reporter for the Daily Journal. Contact him at errol.castens@journalinc.com.