By Dr. CHRISTOPHER MORGAN
Has someone you love ever gone missing? Your mother, grandmother, husband or wife? If you have experienced this, then you are familiar with the awful, fearful feeling you get inside that you may not find them.
Wherever they may be, you wonder if your loved one is safe. Is he or she hurt or in pain? Confused or afraid? Has someone taken advantage of him or her?
This is a feeling that my wife, my family and I will never forget. Last summer my mother went for a routine walk on a bright Sunday afternoon around 4 p.m. When she had not returned within 30 minutes we became concerned.
The search began. First, everyone at home, then the neighbours, followed by the police and extended family and, finally, a radio broadcast announcement around 8:30 p.m. A listener identified my mother, notified the police and she was returned home safely an hour later.
My mother was diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s disease about a year earlier. According to the Ontario Alzheimer’s Society, one in 20 Canadians over age 65 and one in four of those over age 85 are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. My mom was 68 when she was diagnosed.
January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and the theme this year is “See me, not my disease”. There is an emphasis in reducing the stigma around dementia and Alzheimer’s. It is also an opportunity for all of us to become better informed about the disease, support fundraising efforts to find a cure and discover programs and services which help individuals and families affected by Alzheimer’s.
As a health professional, I was aware of Alzheimer’s disease, but my understanding of the condition and its varied impact on one’s life and those around them only became clear with my mother’s diagnosis. I was much more versed, and I dare say, comfortable with chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer, all of which affect people close to me. Alzheimer’s was different. It was new in the family. We had a lot to learn.
According to the Ontario Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s disease is a fatal, progressive and degenerative disease that destroys brain cells. It is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 64 per cent of all dementias in Canada. The damage to the brain cells naturally changes how the brain works and our behaviour.
Looking back now, the changes in my mother’s behaviour over the last few years prior to the diagnosis make more sense. My mother was a strong, healthy, intelligent, independent and loving woman all her life. She was the first-year chemistry lab instructor and coordinator for 37 years at the University of Toronto until she retired in 2007.
She was and remains admired and loved by family members, but she is not the same person anymore. Some of the early signs that things were changing was when I noticed that she stopped taking part in activities that she loved. For example, taking care of her flower garden.
My mom lived alone in her home in Etobicoke. Her neighbours used to comment on the lovely tulips and roses that adorned the front of the house. She used to grow bountiful callaloo and raspberry bushes and make the most delicious raspberry juice. She stopped taking care of the garden and the yard in general along with the raspberries and callaloo we enjoyed so much. Inside her home was meticulously clean and orderly. We use to joke that you could eat off the floor without worrying about it – you couldn’t say that anymore.
While we noticed changes in these areas, by far the most dramatic is the loss of memory of people, places and events in her life. The most painful example was a recent family reunion in which several family members my mom grew up with in Jamaica and others she has become close to since coming to Canada in 1970 were apparent strangers to her. Some were hurt, some angry not knowing and understanding that it’s not personal, that it was the disease which doesn’t allow her to recall certain memories.
In addition to the painful loss of precious memories, the capacity to carry out daily activities smoothly, safely and in a timely manner has been another challenge. Meal preparation can take two or three times as long because she is only comfortable doing one thing at a time. Boil the water, then make the coffee, then toast the bread, then…instead of doing several things at the same time.
There are many other changes that we have witnessed. Reasoning and logical thinking is affected, the ability to make changes or adapt to new things (food, places, routines), sense of time, discretion in communication (saying things you would not normally say, particularly if they are critical), self-care, increased irritability, all of which can be unpredictable and challenging to cope with.
And yet, my mom is more joyous, bubbly and socially friendly than she has ever been. She is quick to talk to someone she meets in a social setting, laughing and smiling She constantly makes reference to and shares examples of the goodness of God in her life then and now. Many people have told me how their short interaction with her impacted them in a positive way. There is much to be learned from that.
Alzheimer’s disease is one in which the body may be willing but the mind is not. It can be very difficult for loved ones and caregivers. Many people who have shared their experiences of having a loved one with Alzheimer’s have told me it’s not going to be easy. By the grace of God, I know He will give me and my family the strength and wisdom for us to live together in health and peace. I know there is much I have learned…patience being the first lesson.
I must thank my wife, and close family members who have done whatever they can to share in the caring for my mom. Based on the Alzheimer’s statistics I mentioned earlier and our aging society, it is worthwhile for us to pay close attention to this condition and do whatever we can to better equip ourselves to help those with the disease and those that love and care for them.
In the coming weeks I will invite a geriatrician (a medical physician with specialization in the care of the elderly) to join the conversation and share more details on the signs and symptoms, risk factors, treatment options, support services and planning for the future for people living with Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Christopher J. Morgan is the director of Morgan Chiropractic & Wellness, an interdisciplinary health centre in Toronto and the Past President of the Black Health Alliance, a network of community organizations, health professionals and community members working in partnership to advance the health and well-being of the Black community. He can be reached at 416-447-7600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.