This is a personal story about Alzheimer’s and how it steals memories from those who get it and twists the memories and lives of family members living and caring for them.
My grandpa was a veteran, a farmer, a quiet and resolute man. We weren’t close, but his dignity and authority in the family was unmistakable. I’m not sure what his political views were, what his favorite meal was, or the type of music he liked to listen to, but I I could see the fascinating memories behind his stern eyes. He married my grandmother in 1948, immediately upon her graduation from high school. At the time he did not know she was mentally ill, but after the birth of my father in 1952, she was admitted to a mental hospital for several weeks. She suffered with schizophrenia her entire life and was admitted several times throughout her life. My grandfather stayed married to her until his death. In total they had 4 sons together, including my dad. Grandpa Walck quit high school and joined the Navy as soon as he turned 18, in March 1945. He was deployed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, later that year, in time to see the war come to an end. An Honor Guard folded the American flag at his funeral in 2008, in respect for his service.
My memories of him are limited, and sadly his family was unaware that his memories were slowly being stolen by Alzheimer’s. When I was a young child, he was an intimidating man, not the type of grandpa to be silly with his grandchildren. One time he scolded my sisters and I for leaving the old-fashioned toy collection strewn across their living room floor, which petrified me. Mostly I remember him sitting in an old recliner in his home in Tecumseh, Oklahoma. Sitting, watching, not talking. I asked my sister if she had any memories of Grandpa. “He always thought we were his grandsons.” One of the only other memories I have is of him raising his voice at my father in the driveway of our house because he did not want to get out of his car. He didn’t want to buy a car, and he didn’t want to deal with this man trying to sell him a car! There was no man trying to sell him a car; it was my dad, his son. I remember he and Grandma came to our house to have lunch, and Grandpa became confused. He thought my dad was trying to sell him a car, and my dad said he often confused him with Grandpa’s first cousin, whom he grew up with near Lindsay, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression.
Dad said he liked strawberry milkshakes, and towards the end, when the disease had progressed to the point of mutism, the shakes my dad brought him were about the only thing he responded to. At that point, Grandpa had lost the ability to speak, and he just existed in his wheelchair until aids put him in his bed to sleep. He lived with the diagnosis for about 10 years, 5 of it in a VA center. I didn’t visit. I was young then, and perhaps I was frightened of looking into the eyes of a man who was slowly forgetting himself. There are many things I wished I would have asked him before he forgot it all. Like thousands of families in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease has taken its toll on many generations of my dad’s family. It is a thieving, ugly disease.
Right now, there is research into methods of detecting Alzheimer’s disease earlier and also into improving treatment. Standard treatment now consists of medications that reduce symptoms, but there are no approved treatments to slow progression. We have known since the ’70s, that defective cholinergic neurons are the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but how to correct this has evaded scientists. A new type of PET scan utilizes an injected tracer which makes the amyloid plaques, the signature protein of Alzheimer’s, in the brain light up. This makes diagnosis easier, since before, the only way to identify the plaques was through post-mortem biopsy. New treatments being investigated also target these amyloid plaques with monoclonal antibodies. This type of therapy would be utilized in patients identified with scans years before symptoms appear, preventing progression of disease and preserving cognitive function.
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Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Investing in hope research initiatives funded by the Alzheimer’s foundation of America. Accessed at https://alzfdn.org/about-us/research-projects/ 2020 Nov
Weller J, Budson A. Current understanding of Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and treatment. F1000Res. 2018 Jul 31;7:F1000 Faculty Rev-1161. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.14506.1. PMID: 30135715; PMCID: PMC6073093.