ONE of my most vivid memories of Dad is hearing him fall through the wall of our house.
It happened in the middle of the night. He was sleeping upstairs and must have tried to reach the bathroom. Instead, he lost both his bearings and his balance, ending up sprawled in the attic behind that broken wall. And the next morning, potential buyers touring the property were treated to the sight of a hole in the wall exactly the shape of my father.
It all seems comical now, but at the time, it was anything but.
Dad got lost in his own home because of Alzheimer’s, a debilitating disease he suffered the entire last decade of his life. It’s a progressive deterioration of the brain that robs victims of their memories, ultimately rendering them helpless. In my father’s case, it began at 62 when he forgot how to function at his job and ended 10 years later at a nursing home with him diapered in a wheelchair unable to recognize anyone.
One of my major fears ever since is that the same thing will happen to me.
Apparently, I’m not alone. According to a recent article in the New York Times, many offspring of Alzheimer’s patients suffer from that very fear. “In some cases,” the piece reports, “they become hypervigilant about monitoring their own memories, each forgotten name or lost set of keys seemingly a sign of something more serious.”
Oh boy, can I relate! The other day I was in the middle of taking my regular morning regimen of vitamins and medications when I forgot which ones I’d taken. That left two choices: start over and risk taking some of them twice or stop altogether and risk not taking some of them at all.
Oh my God, I thought, it’s starting!
Even worse, sometimes in the middle of conversations, I can’t come up with the right word. There it is, stuck at the tip of my tongue from where I just can’t seem to dislodge it. So I quickly improvise, inserting an alternative with roughly the same meaning though never the same precision. While my listener may not notice the difference, I certainly do; as someone for whom words matter, not using the best one drives me insane.
Unfortunately, the fears shared by me and other Alzheimer’s offspring are not unfounded. With 44 million Alzheimer’s patients worldwide, scientists have found a genetic link especially prevalent, they say, in early onset cases appearing before age 65. Often, in fact, a genetic test can detect it.
So what about a cure?
With more than 90 million baby boomers—including me—now at the prime age at which Alzheimer’s generally strikes, researchers have been searching for decades. And, though some drugs show promise, none have yet been approved. “It turns out there is a huge flaw in the drug-discovery process,” a recent Wall Street Journal column explained. “The Catch-22 is that Big Pharma won’t fund human trials for promising new drugs without a ‘proof of concept.’ But you can’t show a proof of concept without human trials.”
Doctors and therapists, meanwhile, suggest changes in lifestyle to combat or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. “You get people who reframe their fear into a positive by doing lifestyle activities that may be a benefit,” Dr. David Wolk, director of the Penn Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, told the New York Times. Among the most effective: becoming more physically and cognitively active.
My own anti-dementia campaign features the obsessive habit of writing almost daily which, so far anyway, seems to have kept it at bay. Do I occasionally struggle for just the right word? You bet. But there’s a huge difference between writing and conversing that forms the core of my plan. It’s called the dictionary.
(David Haldane’s award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists,” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is a journalist, author, and sometimes radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City.)