On caregivers, faith, family, and writing…

I received a letter from the Alzheimer’s Association this week. It was an acknowledgement of a gift made in honor of Mom by my sweet mother-in-law Betty. The timing was perfect since Monday was Mom’s birthday, and September is World Alzheimer’s Month. The back of the letter was devoted to an article titled “10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s disease.” An article in our local paper about Alzheimer’s Month listed several ways to observe the month, one of which was to speak up about the disease. I can’t speak with authority about causes, treatment, cure, research, numbers affected, or what’s on the horizon in relation to this insidious disease, but I can speak about my experience, so I’m devoting my next several posts to the warning signs.

When Mom first started exhibiting symptoms many years ago, public awareness of Alzheimer’s was in its infancy. When someone misplaced a set of car keys or forgot a name, they joked about having “Some-timers,” and some people stopped drinking soft drinks from aluminum cans and cooking in aluminum cookware in hopes of avoiding the disease. We were as uneducated as anyone, but if we had known the difference between typical age-related changes and the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease, we might not have waited several years before consulting a doctor. The “Warning Signs” article has the following advice when you begin to notice changes:

Ask yourself: Is this something new? For example, if the person was never good at balancing a checkbook, struggling with this task is probably not a warning sign. But if their ability to balance a checkbook has changed a lot, it is something to share with a doctor…

To help, the Alzheimer’s Association has created this list of warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Every individual may experience one or more of these in different degrees. If you notice any of them, please see a doctor.

The first warning sign is “memory changes that disrupt daily life.” If you sometimes forget names or appointments, but remember them later, you’re probably experiencing typical age-related changes. Here’s the real warning sign:

One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s, especially in the early stages, is forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events; asking for the same information over and over; relying on memory aides (e.g., reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own.

The first symptom I noticed in Mom was what I called “the loop.” She asked the same question or told the same story several times in a fifteen-minute conversation. She often forgot where we were going, and she always thought it was her birthday, regardless of whose big day we were celebrating. One of the most graphic examples of her inability to learn new tasks came early one Saturday when I got a call from an alarm company.

“An alarm is going off at your parent’s house,” said an unidentified female voice. “I can’t reach them by phone, and you’re listed as the secondary contact.”

“You must have the wrong number,” I said. “My parents don’t have an alarm system.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “We installed their system yesterday.”

“Oh, really!” I said. “Can you hold a minute?”

I called Dad on my cell phone. When he picked up the phone, I heard an alarm blasting as he frantically explained how Mom had accidentally set it off. With a phone at each ear, I relayed instructions to him and restored silence. Obviously, I had some investigating to do.

Mom and Dad lived in a small house on a busy, well-lit corner within sight of the police station, but a salesman convinced them they needed a full alarm system. Within hours of its installation, they had set it off several times, and going over the instructions repeatedly only added to the confusion. When they moved in with us, Mom got confused if I bought a different brand of milk, so you can imagine how she dealt with key pads, number codes, and a panic button. I started making phone calls and eventually worked my way up to the owner of the company. After explaining the situation as patiently as possible and also explaining how interested the media is in companies that take advantage of the elderly, I convinced him to take out the system at no cost to my parents.

That was the beginning of our long journey, and we learned a lot along the way. There is not yet a cure, but early intervention and treatment can slow the disease and increase your loved one’s quality of life. For more information about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, contact the Alzheimer’s Association at 800.272.3900 or www.alz.org.



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