Dementia affects the entire family

by Emily P. Walker

My grandfather recently died of pancreatic cancer.

My grandpa was a WWII veteran, a nature enthusiast, an animal-lover, a chiropractor until the 1980s, and a firm believer in natural medicine. He helped my grandmother give birth to five children in her bed, and neither of them had ever taken any drugs except when both were hospitalized one winter with pneumonia.

As someone with a major respect for medical doctors and modern medicine, I can’t say I agreed with his beliefs, but there is something to be said for the fact that he lived to 83, managed to avoid the hospital at the end of his life (with the exception of a one-day stint) and died a peaceful death at home, overlooking his yard, where a small herd of deer gathered, peering in the bay window.

His funeral a few weeks ago was a loving tribute to his life, filled with Irish music, and perfect in the sense it made me feel good about the life he lived and less focused on his death. In fact, the saddest part of the trip to my grandparents’ Northern Michigan town was the note my grandma wrote in a card she gave to my grandpa for their 60th wedding anniversary, which they celebrated on Feb. 25.

“I’d write you a nice note, but I’m losing my brain.”

My grandmother is in the early stages of dementia.

It’s hard for me to even imagine my beautiful grandma not being healthy, because — just as I’m sure she never looked like the other mothers — she doesn’t look a thing like the other grandmas. She’s in her early 80s, but looks as though she’s in her 60s. She’s trim, still very pretty, and never stops moving. She starts the morning with sit-ups and push-ups and she spends the rest of day working around her house or in her garden.

Several of my aunts brought my grandma down to the Detroit suburbs last week where a gerontologist confirmed what we suspected: while physically strong and healthy — she has dementia. When asked what the date was, my grandma thought it was September. She was prescribed Aricept.

Now my family is going through what so many other families have been through, and will go through: figuring out how to care for a loved one in cognitive decline while respecting the life that person lived and is still trying to hold on to.

Because my grandma lives three hours north of my father and his sisters, they are taking turns making the drive to check on her. She left the stove on a few times, and continues to forget to eat regularly, and it’s clear she needs assistance, so a home healthcare worker will come twice a day to check on her.

We’re all worried that’s not enough, and would like her to come live closer to the family. But for a woman who has spent her life amassing antiques and treasures that she holds so dear, asking her to leave them behind seems cruel. Sadly, it will likely prove necessary at some point.

Emily Walker is a MedPage Today Washington Correspondent  and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.

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