The Alzheimer’s Research Paradigm If you’ve every studied philosophy of science, you’ll recognize that current research in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease is battling paradigms. The funny thing is, the Alzheimer’s field hasn’t even reached the level of robust theory, yet there is strife in the ranks of researchers fighting over the direction inquiry should […]
Here is something frustrating about clinical trials of Alzheimer’s drugs: the FDA requires that such trials show an almost immediate improvement in memory tests of participants in order for the drug to get approval, disregarding improvement in other symptoms, and consequently derailing a possible cure for this dreaded disease. Here is why I think there […]
Today the world has been given the very bad news that there is nothing that can help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. The disease is a thief and a murderer, and nothing can stand in its way.
I say the folks who did these studies need to study Mom. Round out the evidence of all that hopeless progression with a little taste of surprising regression.
I wrote the rest of this post a week ago, but only got around to publishing it today:
Mom is going backwards. She’s regressing, it seems to us, and that’s a good thing when you have Alzheimer’s.
How? What? When? Where? Why? Is it wishful thinking that we’re seeing marked improvement in Mom’s cognition, or is this real?
Exactly what I’m asking myself these days. Granted, being a highly motivated observer may make my observations suspect, but I feel it would be irresponsible not to report what appears to be clear evidence of improvement in Mom’s condition. It would be irresponsible of you not to suspect my findings, but dumb not to take a look at all.
So here goes.
A few weeks ago, we who have been taking care of (or been around) Mom for the past three years noticed that we were telling people Mom was having a good month. We were used to telling people that Mom was “having a good day” every now and then. A good day once a week was a good thing. But the entire month of March of this year seemed to be “a good day.” It came to the point that we were scratching our heads saying, “Hmm. Maybe Mom doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. Maybe this was all stress, and now that she’s been de-stressed for three years, she’s coming back.”
So I decided to take inventory of the new signs of cognition (and physical improvement) coming from Mom these days. What exactly is she doing that she wasn’t doing before? This is what I have:
- Mom has gained weight. Exactly a year ago Mom weighed 85 pounds and was bed-ridden with pneumonia. Hospice pronounced her a week from the grave. Today Mom weighs 95.5 pounds. No sign of physical sickness (OK, an occasional night fever and drippy nose).
- Mom sucks from a straw. For the longest time, we were having to “prime the pump” to get Mom to suck from a straw. A year ago, when we put a straw in her mouth, nothing would happen. So we’d plug the straw with our finger, then release the contents into her mouth, and, voila, she’d start sucking. Now Mom sucks as soon as the straw hits her lips.
- Mom opens her mouth at the sight of food. Again, for the longest time we’d just get a pleasant stare when we lifted a fork to her mouth. Two years ago, it would take us a good hour and a half to get through breakfast because it was only one time out of ten that Mom’s lips would part when we brought food to her mouth. Now, six-seven times out of ten, her mouth opens like a baby bird’s. Breakfast time has been cut in half.
- Mom swallows. Up until (this is where I wish I’d kept an exact diary) about four months ago, Mom had a permanent sore on the right side of her mouth. This was caused by the fact that Mom leans to the right when she sleeps, and food that remained in her mouth (because she wasn’t aware enough to swallow) dribbled out and ate at her skin. No matter how well we brushed her teeth and how much Vaseline we slathered around her lips, the sore was there off and on for the last three years until–a few months ago. The sore has not returned.
- Mom watches TV now. Meaning, she actually turns to it, focuses on it, and laughs on cue–sometimes for a 10-15 minute stretch. This hasn’t happened at all in the past three years until this “awakening.”
- Mom stops at the photo gallery in the hallway, looks at individual family photos and “comments.” For the past three years we’ve been walking through the hallway with Mom–past a 4 foot x 4 foot photo gallery–occasionally stopping to show Mom the family photos in hopes of getting a response. She wouldn’t even look where we were pointing. And if she focused at all, it would just as likely be on a knot in the wood frame as on a photo. Now Mom takes the initiative to stop and look from frame to frame, pointing, jabbering, looking at us and back at the photos. Sometimes getting teary-eyed at our description of the photos.
- Mom is using sentences. I wrote in a previous post that Mom’s language consists almost entirely of two syllable experiments in sound with an occasional word thrown in. We used to get so excited when she uttered a word that we’d call a family member and share the big news. In the past couple weeks, Mom has used short sentences. Like three days ago when I put her to bed, I said, “Mom, I love you.” She nodded and said, “For me, for me, for me too too.” The next morning at breakfast I tried to give her some juice while she was still chewing on her eggs and she shoved my hand aside and said “Put it down down.” I put her down for a nap in the afternoon, put on some Vivaldi, and did a farcical ballet dance (a la BodyVox). She nodded and said, “Yes. I do too too too.” Then that evening when I tried to give her her Seroquel (ground up in some juice), she shook her head. I kept bringing the juice to her mouth, and in exasperation she said, “Tsk! What what what do you do?” (Translation, “cut it out!”).
Four sentences in two days! Yesterday was a quiet day for Mom. No miraculous signs of anything. I’m dying to report more on this healing process, but Mom is not a science project, and I have to remember that she is worth all my love no matter what direction her mind and body take.
But I do think it’s worth mentioning that something has happened to Mom that has sent this Alzheimer’s into some sort of retreat. There is more than death taking place in her brain. Somewhere, somehow, regeneration is taking place as well.
Have any of you had the experience of watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s have a good month? I know Bob DeMarco recently reported an extraordinary event with his mother Dotty. Huge “regressive” step.
Next question will be, what could be causing these amazing regressions? We may have to rely on each other–the caregivers–to find the answer rather than on lab tests alone.
How much time is enough time? We know we are mortals and we know life is but a breath. In light of eternity, we calculate that 100 years passes as quickly as twenty. Yet, given anything less than 100, and we say we’ve been “cut off.”
My big, strapping brother-in-law lays in the hospital right now, fighting for each new minute after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He is tired, and he is ready to rest. We would prefer the doctors find a cure and make him bounce back, but we want to let him go.
Throughout this whole battle, Ken’s mind worked around his brain to bring humor and gratitude to his situation. He firmly believes God’s purposes can be worked through the worst tragedies, and it is amazing to hear how his concerns were always for the eternal perspective he could bring to the waiting room, the surgery room, the recovery room.
Ken’s life may be cut short in our view, but it has been a life well-lived, and that’s more than a lot folks can say. Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living; an anonymous person added that an unlived life is not worth examining. I can vouch for Ken that he’s had a life worth examining.
April 26, a.m.: Ken had a brain hemorrage last night and is on life support. Awaiting a family gathering to let him go.
April 26, 7 p.m. Goodbye Kenny. From someone who was present at his bedside: ” just wanted to write and let you know that Ken’s passing was beautiful in the midst of family and hymns and Scripture. The more that Daniel read and Ruth recited the easier his respirations…and soon he just passed on.”
We already miss your booming laugh, your exhuberant living, and your unwavering faith. Save us a place at the banquet table, and we’ll see you in the morning.
Now that’s what I mean. You read something about Alzheimer’s, and all of a sudden you see evidence everywhere that you’ve got it and that your life is over.
I’ve avoided reading Still Alice for years precisely because I knew it would send me reeling with the truth of my own “probable” early-onset Alzheimer’s. But I did finally pick it up, and, sure enough, suffered a major breakdown right about chapter three. Yikes! I do have it. Just like Alice, I forgot I was supposed to work on Friday, and when my sister called to remind me, I crumbled. It’s not just that I forgot. It’s that I forgot and didn’t have that nagging feeling telling me that I was forgetting something eating away at me. It was the peaceful forgetting that terrified me. Surely this doesn’t happen to a person unless they have Alzheimer’s. Ever. Right?
Is this forgetting normal or something more sinister? Is it stress from caring for Mom with Alzheimer’s and Dad with Parkinson’s (with a touch of menopause for me), or am I following in my mother’s footsteps?
The lucky thing for me is that I don’t have medical insurance–which means I can’t go to a doctor for a diagnosis. I say I’m lucky because, as we all know, it’s not so much the disease that hurts people, it’s the diagnosis. And it’s not just any diagnosis. Cancer, people rally around you. Alzheimer’s or any kind of mental illness, and the room empties out.
Shoot, you can have the disease for years, but as soon as you get diagnosed, that’s when the tazing starts. People just automatically take out their stigma-tazers and start shooting. And they think they have it set on stun, but really those stigma-tazers are always set on kill.
So my question is, what do you do when you read or hear about terrifying conditions to keep yourself from assuming yourself into that condition and absorbing the fear that is often marketed with it? How do you “keep your head, when all about are losing theirs”? (Kippling)
And once you’re diagnosed, how do you overcome all that tazing?
Chuck’s blog on early onset Alzheimer’s is, I think, a courageous way of dealing with one such diagnosis.
What is your way of dealing with the fear of Alzheimer’s–whether it’s diagnosed or imagined?
Trying to follow Alzheimer’s research sometimes feels like walking through an Escher exhibit: the contradictions can border on the absurd.
Take the new findings on SIRT1 and its relation to Alzheimer’s. Research after research shows that SIRT1 apparently protects against Alzheimer’s:
25 July 2010. The sirtuin protein SIRT1 is emerging as an important player in learning and memory, and may have potential as a therapeutic target in Alzheimer disease. Fresh on the heels of a July 11 Nature paper that demonstrated a crucial role for SIRT1 in memory (see ARF related news story on Gao et al., 2010), two new papers add to the growing body of evidence that SIRT1 helps keep brains healthy. In a paper appearing July 21 in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers led by Valter Longo at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, show that a SIRT1 knockout mouse has numerous defects in learning and memory. This finding implies that SIRT1 could have a protective role in AD, and indeed, in a July 23 Cell paper, researchers led by Leonard Guarente at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, report that overexpression of SIRT1 can decrease Aβ production and the number of amyloid plaques in a mouse model of AD.
You’d think, then, that more SIRT1 is better for Alzheimer’s and less is worse. But:
Michán and colleagues also examined a transgenic mouse that overexpressed SIRT1 16-fold in the brain. On this normal mouse background, the authors found that this massive SIRT1 overexpression conferred no improvements in learning or memory, and that synaptic function was unchanged except for a slight increase in neuronal excitability.
And though less is worse, vitamin B3 in the form of niacinamide has been shown to “cure” Alzheimer’s in mice by decreasing the expression of SIRT1: Nicotinamide Restores Cognition in Alzheimer’s Disease Transgenic Mice via a Mechanism Involving Sirtuin Inhibition and Selective Reduction of Thr231-PhosphotauWe evaluated the efficacy of nicotinamide, a competitive inhibitor of the sirtuins or class III NAD+-dependent HDACs in 3xTg-AD mice, and found that it restored cognitive deficits associated with pathology. Nicotinamide selectively reduces a specific phospho-species of tau (Thr231) that is associated with microtubule depolymerization, in a manner similar to inhibition of SirT1. Nicotinamide also dramatically increased acetylated -tubulin, a primary substrate of SirT2, and MAP2c, both of which are linked to increased microtubule stability. .
When asked about this contradiction, Dr. Greene, one of the researchers on this paper says,
You are correct – there are contradictions between the role of Sirt1 in AD. Regardless of these, nicotinamide has good effects in the preclinical models, and has been shown to now be effective for other neurodegenerative diseases as well. Sirt1 may be beneficial at some stages of the disease, and not others – we cannot [reconcile] these differences at this stage, but our research says that nicotinamide is highly effective in preclinical models and that inhibition of Sirt1 plays a role in these effects.
My mind wants to hyperventilate with the contradictions, but then I remember the story of the three blind men describing an elephant and realize the contradiction exists only because we do not yet fully understand.
And that’s what drives research onward.
Yesterday I came across Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem in Alice in Wonderland (you can download the whole book for free at Gutenberg).
I’ve always loved how Carroll made nonsense words sound like language. But what got me this time around was Alice’s response, and the parallel of that with how I feel about “talking” to Mom.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’
A curious thing happened to me on my way to finding the cure for Alzheimer’s all on my own: I gained more respect for drug research companies, for neurologists, for folks who are obsessed with theories and practically live in their labs trying to prove their theories. More specifically, I gained greater respect for drug companies that fail colossally, then dust themselves off and try again.
After Eli Lilly revealed that their latest trials of the Alzheimer’s drug semagacestat resulted in greater dementia in their subjects, the response from the public was overwhelmingly angry. Adding to Lilly’s revelation, a recent report on Alzheimer’s drug company stocks by NeuroInvestment painted a bleak picture of the effectiveness of Alzheimer’s drug development across the board, giving the impression that research in the field is pretty much a crap shoot.
If you follow the very well-attended Alzheimer’s Reading Room online, you will see an interesting reaction to these reports. Richard Taylor (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) is one of many who feel crushed and devalued by the repeated failures of Alzheimer’s drug trials. Imagine trying to live with hope, then seeing over and over again that no matter how much money and time is spent on Alzheimer’s research, reality refuses to sustain any hope.
No matter the good intentions, Alzheimer’s research seems a recipe for failure.
This week I got a wee taste of what things might look like from the inside of these drug companies. For the past few years, I’ve been building a theory of Alzheimer’s of my own and keeping my eyes peeled for evidence that would support my suspicions. More recently, I decided to take a serious look at my hunch and see if a) I could gather legitimate scientific data that would shed light on my “theory,” and, b) see if this data had any kind of flow to it—if it had a “storyboard.”
My motives were twofold: I like to discover truths; and I very much want to avoid getting Alzheimer’s (like my mother). Curiosity and Fear fed my research. When I finally thought I had an airtight storyboard, excitement at the implications led to action: I shot off my “storyboard” to a leading researcher in the field.
Sobriety set in the next day. I took another look at what I’d written, then re-checked my sources and found not just one, but several really weak extrapolations in my thinking, and one particularly week substantiation of the evidence. I should have waited. I should have spent another eight weeks (I know, right?) researching before putting it out there and risking embarrassment.
But think about it: the possibility of being right on something so devastatingly urgent will make people take risks. And I’m not talking only about the drug companies; people signing up for drug trials are equally taking risks, knowing that the outcome is not certain at all. When you consider that it takes years and years and years to move inches in the direction of a safe and effective drug release (such as the six years it took to find how a fine-tuned alternate to semagacestat About a decade ago, Dr. Greengard and his postdocoral students made their first discovery on the path to finding the new protein. They got a hint that certain types of pharmaceuticals might block beta amyloid. So they did an extensive screen of pharmaceuticals that met their criteria and found that one of them, Gleevec, worked. It completely stopped beta amyloid production. That was exciting, until Dr. Greengard discovered that Gleevec was pumped out of the brain. Still, he found that if he infused Gleevec directly into the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s genes, beta amyloid went away. ‘We spent the next six years or so trying to figure out how Gleevec worked’ on gamma secretase, Dr. Greengard said. He knew, though, that he was on to something important.functioned in mice), the urgency for a cure leads all sides to gamble on a shortcut. And we’re not interested in companies that aim to keep the Alzheimer’s victim home “three months longer.” We want a cure.
Colossal goals risk colossal failures.
Can you just imagine what went through the minds and guts of Lilly’s leaders when they realized they’d failed? When they had to go out there and tell their shareholders of their failure?
“Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that our drug was more effective than the placebo…”
Of course drug companies are going to be motivated by the excitement of financial gain. But they’re also going to be motivated by the fear of getting it wrong. They know what failure can do to their reputations and their ability to fund further research.
Today, Indystar.com published a very thoughtful article on Eli Lilly’s semagacestat trial failure. You won’t have to wonder what it was like behind the scenes at Eli Lilly—the article gives you a pretty well-rounded look. You also won’t have to wonder what someone’s response would be after being given the drug and having it backfire. From the wife of one participant:
“I just hope the researchers dig their heels in and keep trying to find a cure,” Dianne said. “That’s the important thing.”
I know there’s the whole layer of marketing that plants diseases into people’s conciousness so drug companies can make money off their fears. For this there is a solution: TiVo (and the advice of a good doctor).
But we shouldn’t assume that everyone researching Alzheimer’s has only one goal in mind—to get into our pockets with random, pointless medications. Any rational company would avoid this particular field: the risk of failure is pretty much guaranteed.
I hope we can learn from Eli Lilly and other Alzheimer’s research companies to risk failure; to work even harder; to join forces in finding a cure.
We are continually hearing that Medicare is going to go bankrupt by mid-century thanks to the skyrocketing costs of an aging population in need of prescription drugs and dementia care.
Medicare Part D costs to the government in 2010 were $62 billion and are projected to climb to $150 billion by 2019. And Medicare costs for Alzheimer’s care will increase more than 600 percent, from $88 billion today to $627 billion in 2050.
Here is a double-barreled solution to the costs of Medicare Part D and Alzheimer’s care: replace prescription drugs with equally effective placebos and employ mildly-cognitively-impaired individuals as healthcare enhancement agents.
This is not a joke. Here is why this would work and save the federal government billions:
Placebos—if delivered properly—could potentially be more effective and considerably less costly than many current prescription drugs.
Here is an example of an experiment with placebos for a “purely physical ailment”:
One group was simply put on a waiting list; researchers know that some patients get better just because they sign up for a trial. Another group received placebo treatment from a clinician who declined to engage in small talk. Volunteers in the third group got the same sham treatment from a clinician who asked them questions about symptoms, outlined the causes of [their ailment], and displayed optimism about their condition.
Not surprisingly, the health of those in the third group improved most. In fact, just by participating in the trial, volunteers in this high-interaction group got as much relief as did people taking the two leading prescription drugs for IBS. And the benefits of their bogus treatment persisted for weeks afterward, contrary to the belief—widespread in the pharmaceutical industry—that the placebo response is short-lived.
It has been found that placebos can sometimes work even better than the leading prescription drug for any given disease, with certain factors contributing to their effectiveness:
Yellow pills make the most effective antidepressants, like little doses of pharmaceutical sunshine. Red pills can give you a more stimulating kick. Wake up, Neo. The color green reduces anxiety, adding more chill to the pill. White tablets—particularly those labeled “antacid”—are superior for soothing ulcers, even when they contain nothing but lactose. More is better, scientists say. Placebos taken four times a day deliver greater relief than those taken twice daily. Branding matters. Placebos stamped or packaged with widely recognized trademarks are more effective than “generic” placebos. Clever names can add a placebo boost to the physiological punch in real drugs. Viagra implies both vitality and an unstoppable Niagara of sexy.
If you’re thinking that the suggestion of using placebos is unethical, check out this study:
“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” says Kaptchuk. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.”
The participants were monitored for three weeks and, at the end of the trial, 59% of the patients given the placebo reported ample symptom improvement as compared to 35% of the control group. Furthermore, participants who took the placebo had rates of improvement about equal to the effects of the most powerful IBS drugs.
Deception is unethical. Honesty is not. If there is a joke it’s in the current medical practice of prescribing expensive drugs that are sold without the most important ingredient that made them effective in the trials—the same ingredient that makes placebos effective.
As we would all imagine, the most important factor in the effectiveness of placebos is the doctor’s bedside manner. That is, the presence of compassion in the treatment of an ailment.
Regarding a Cognitively Impaired Workforce
The double-barreled solution in employing people with mild dementia as healthcare enhancement agents is that we would save on prescription drugs, hospital recovery times, and also be assigning purpose to people with mild cognitive impairment. Folks whose initial downward slope in the aging process is a bit early are not an “unproductive force in the economy.” There is richness of intellect, creativity, and compassion that could be tapped rather than stomped on per our current dementia stigmatization.
There was a time when people with physical disabilities couldn’t get jobs. But we’ve come a long way in learning of the tremendous contribution that the disabled can give, and have accommodated the workplace for such individuals with ramps and wider doorways and elevators in order to reap this benefit. Why not do the same for MCI individuals? Why are we instead discarding this tremendous resource?
In reading blogs of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, one of the biggest stresses for both the sufferer and the government is issuance of social security disability benefits. Why not offer employment rather than cash benefits? If compassion at the bedside of a sick person dramatically speeds the healing process, think of the savings accrued by employing love & joy-givers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes?
In his book The Gift of Pain, Dr. Brand lists the factors that enhance pain and prolong the healing process: fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, boredom, helplessness. He then describes how perfectly suited many institutions are in promoting these feelings with their sterile settings, uncommunicative doctors and nurses, boring surroundings (and now that nurses spend all their time at computer terminals per our new streamlining guidelines, these factors are further compounded). Healthcare institutions could cut their costs by employing people to:
Design and paint interesting scenes on hospital ceilings
Play instruments in institutional corridors (not just harps, please!)
Make dolls for nursing home patients
Read aloud to patients, or simply visit
Reupholster institutional furniture with fun fabrics
Take certified dogs into institutions for cheery visits
The savings in dollars would be compounded all around, and the savings in dignity for all healthcare users a welcome change for our society.
Eleanor Cooney’s Death in Slow Motion: a Memoir of a Daughter, Her Mother, and the Beast Called Alzheimer’s is not just one book. This is two tales in one: a memoir of desperate caregiving and a biography. The memoir part follows Eleanor’s hyperventilated, drug and alcohol-sustained trek through the five stages of Alzheimer’s caregiving for her mother, Mary Durant, and the biography chapters relate the story of her mother prior to Alzheimer’s (think Dorothy Parker with abundant sex and alcohol) ending with a very rare love story between Mary Durant and Michael Harwood (her third husband). Having the story weave through these two windows makes the reader feel the compounded tragedy of the beast called Alzheimer’s.
You will laugh, clench, oggle, envy, and cry as you read this literary gem.
As a bonus, Cooney includes a previously unpublished short story written by her mother (in a style I would call Flannery O’Connor cum wicked smirk).
Buy it. Read it. Pass it on.
P.S. People who read this book will probably also buy and read Mary Durant and Michael Harwood’s On the Road with John James Audubon. Mine is already in the mail.
I just finished reading Peter Whitehouse and Daniel George’s book The Myth of Alzheimer’s.
How dare you! you want to say when you first see the title. My mother went through hell with this disease, and you’re saying it’s all imaginary? HOW DARE YOU!
Then you read the book and understand.
I’m not sure I agree with the entire revision of the story of Alzheimer’s, but I did like the tenor of the book. It’s compassionate toward those who suffer from dementia and even more so toward those who suffer from the stigma of dementia. It is angry at Big Pharma—the machine that markets fear of dementia so they can sell their mostly ineffective drugs. And it is angry at the medical establishment that succumbs to that marketing—toward doctors who accept gifts (in disguise) in exchange for prescribing Big Pharma drugs to their patients.
Dr. Whitehouse stresses that he was one of the cogs in that machine. His research helped write the story of Alzheimer’s as a disease, and his advice was sought after by pharmaceutical companies as they worked to develop drugs like Aricept and Namenda.
He was part of the machine until he realized he had helped create a monster that now feeds on the stigma of dementia such that no one is allowed to age with dignity if aging includes any level of dementia. The stigma of dementia has been blown up so large that anyone with a tinge of it is considered finished. People are no longer a mixed bag of assets and deficits. Once a person’s memory starts to go, he has no value unless the “deficit” is “fixed.”
Dr. Whitehouse points out instead that even with cognitive deficits, human beings still have plenty of assets to draw from in living fully satisfying lives.
So what is the myth?
Memory can be wonderful and cruel all at once.
It’s been almost a year since Dad died, and I’ve discovered that it takes a year to fully recover from the exhaustion of caregiving. It takes a year to recover fully enough to crave the chance to do it a second time over—to do it right this time.
Last Thursday was one of those gorgeous days that make your spirit soar. It was just warm enough, just breezy enough, just relaxing enough, just full enough of good plans that I wanted Dad here to enjoy it with us. I was in the middle of a supermarket parking lot when that thought came to me, and it was the beginning of a four-day breakdown.
Why can’t I be given a second chance? I’ve got all my energy back now, and I swear if I’m allowed, I’ll show Daddy all the tenderness that I had no time or energy to give him before. Why did he have to die before I recovered my ability to love him?
It was a catch-22 I battled with all weekend.
That Thursday evening I drove over the mountains to attend the licensing of a young preacher. I took advantage of the lonesome drive to listen to a book on tape my niece lent me. The title was “My Life in the Middle Ages.” It was supposed to be funny. Turns out the first two CDs were all about this guy’s father’s declining months. It was about death; about tying up all those messy loose ends.
Of course I bawled my way through that. When I couldn’t take it anymore—when I thought I’d better get my face in shape for the licensing ceremony—I popped in an Ingrid Michaelson CD. Quirky, upbeat Ingrid. Problem is, I’d never really listened to some of those songs before. About the fifth song on the CD is about the inevitability of death. “We are all snowmen, and we’re going to melt one day.”
The same message is being pounded into me over and over.
We’re all snowmen, and were are going to melt one day. It’s the norm. It’s not a devastating tragedy.
But the point of it? The point of living and dying and leaving others behind to bawls their eyes out?
Here I was, the daughter of a preacher, going to the licensing ceremony of a young, vibrant, new preacher, and I wasn’t getting it.
The point of living and dying, it slowly sunk in, is to pass on the baton. The best thing we can do is to spend ourselves living, then die and offer the lessons of our lives as rich mulch for the next generation.
It made me think of all the lessons I absorbed from Dad’s life. Like:
– Nature is awesome
– Don’t spend what you don’t have
– Prayer changes things
– God is gentle
– Invest in people on the fringe of society; they’re the ones who will remember you
It was a good weekend to mourn and know that there is good in all of this.
From now on, when mourning strikes, I will try to add to the list of lessons learned.
And I will think about how my life will have an impact after I—like all of us will—eventually melt.
So, the music itself was great. Plus, Greg was a gem of an entertainer, weaving funny little stories throughout his performance, making us laugh and shout out responses. Very audience-attentive.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
See, when Greg first came out on the stage, he sat in front of a rickety old pump organ that was set up next to his keyboard (just two of about sixty eight instruments he played that night). And he told us the story of how he went out to buy a computer that day and ended up buying this antique organ instead. A 1911 organ to be precise.
Now, the whole time he was relating his organ-acquisition saga, I was thinking of Mom, because this was the exact kind of organ that Mom played in church down in Brazil for many years. And I was picturing Sunday afternoons when Mom would fold up the organ (or have one of us kids do it), hoist it into the van and drive it to one of the favelas around town for a Bible club. I pictured snotty little kids running to the van, touching the organ as it was set up, and singing their lungs out at the sound of Mom’s squeaky playing.
At the end of his story, Greg paused, looked at the organ, and said, “I’ll have to name her.”
Well. It didn’t take two seconds for me to think of the perfect name for that organ. So I shouted out “Ruth!”
And it didn’t take Greg two seconds to feel it in his bones that the name fit. He chuckled, muttered something about my timid voice (I thought I’d shouted), and agreed that the organ should be named Ruth.
It made my day. Made my niece’s day, cuz now her Greg Laswell has an organ named after her grandmother (hmm. Is there any good way to reword that sentence?).
But this story means even more to me for the irony in it. You see, Greg sings a lot about trying to forget. Trying to forget a love. Trying to forget the pain of a lost love. And here he is now, lugging around a little pump organ whose namesake–Ruth–wants more than anything else in the world to remember. Too weird. One is cursed by memory, the other by the loss of it.
Anyway. I have to thank Greg for a fun night that will only grow in significance as I retell this story.
And you have to keep an eye out for Greg. In case, you know, he turns out to be somebody. Like Ruth.
It’s a very painful fact that I miss Dad and that I wish I had spent more “being time” with him instead of dividing my time between being and being productive. As I’ve mentioned before, in hindsight, all you want is to be near the one you’ve lost just a few more minutes. Nothing else matters but being in the person’s presence and having them know you are there.
I want to do this with Mom, but Alzheimer’s presents a huge problem. Whenever I see Mom sitting alone, it kills me because she looks so terribly alone. So I go sit with her, and on a good day—most days—she is riveted with my presence. But the second I leave her sight—to fling clothes from the washer to the dryer; to use the bathroom; to make a cup of tea—she is completely alone again. And in those moments—from her perspective—she has always been and always will be alone. There is no memory of my having been in her presence all morning other than a few moments of necessary “productive time.”
I hate this disease. There is no sufficient quality time you can give someone with Alzheimer’s. As a caregiver, it feels like there is no neutral status for you as a human being: you are either benevolent or malevolent; sacrificial or selfish; worthy or worthless.
Alzheimer’s isn’t a one-man disease; it does a pretty good job of spreading the pain around.
This weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.
One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.
Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.
Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.
From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.
One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.
As an artist whose artistic mother also has Alzheimer’s, this movie hit home for me. It was like watching my own mother lose all her nouns, then her knowledge of interpreting nouns on a canvas, and finally her knowledge of self.
In this film, the mother’s sorrow and fear are mitigated by the son’s desire to hang out with her. I only hope his desire lasted beyond the making of the film. For the sake of all those with Alzheimer’s, I hope love lasts beyond the time the disease is an interesting artistic or scientific curiosity. I hope it lasts beyond the time a diseased person has anything at all to offer.
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