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A Mean Disease

September 7, 2013


“I must be getting that old timer’s disease.”  The elderly man had forgotten where he put his car keys. He eventually found them still in the lock on the driver’s side door of his automobile.

He, of course, meant Alzheimer’s disease, not old timer’s disease.

First described by German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer in 1906, the malady is usually diagnosed in people over sixty-five years of age.  Early-onset Alzheimer’s, however, can occur much sooner. As of yet, researchers have found no cure for this form of dementia.

Every Alzheimer’s patient manifests individual characteristics of the disease, but common symptoms do exist. In the early stages, difficulty remembering recent events is usual. As the disease progresses, symptoms can include confusion, irritability, aggression, mood swings, and long-term memory loss. As patients continue to decline they may withdraw from family and become suspicious of those caring for them. Gradually, vital functions are lost, eventually leading to death.

By anyone’s estimation, Alzheimer’s is a mean disease that is sneaky and deceptive.  Early on it comes creeping, stalking almost unnoticed into the life of a person we love.  Like a giant constrictor, Alzheimer’s coils around a beautiful, vibrant person and gradually tightens, squeezing and crushing until all life is gone.  The deadly grip of this disease does its damage before death actually occurs.  As one grieving husband said to me, “I lost my wife three years ago.  She just has not died yet.”

Miz Lib was my mother-in-law.  At her funeral I remarked, “It’s a good thing I fell in love with Clare before I met her mom and dad.  If I had met them first she might have thought I married her just to be near them.” Miz Lib was a master gardener and an avid birdwatcher.  She was a voracious reader and a connoisseur of the arts.  Her biscuits and double-fudge brownies would put Betty Crocker to shame.

When her husband – Mr. Jack as I called him – died of congestive heart failure, Miz Lib responded with her usual spunk.  She became involved in a grief support group known as New Roads and served on the beautification committee in the Arts Partnership in her town.  She was elected to the board of the Methodist church where she was a member.

Miz Lib traded two older cars for one new car because, as she said, “I have a lot of traveling to do.”  Her traveling was mostly in the direction of her grandchildren.  She stood on the sidelines, cheering at soccer games.  She also attended music recitals, school plays, and assorted church activities, eager to share her life with our family.  She walked three miles a day and created a walking club in her neighborhood.  When Miz Lib vacationed at the beach each summer, she thoroughly enjoyed building sandcastles and hunting for seashells.

When Miz Lib’s her memory started failing, she was able to cover it well for a time.  “I just have too much to remember,” she explained.  When her health starting failing, we were saddened.  The little things at first eventually led to more severe problems.

Then came the outbursts of anger.  In one especially dramatic episode, this sweet Methodist lady turned the air blue with profanity we had never before heard. Clare was heartbroken.  Later that night, I teased, “Your mother had a secret life.  She must have been a sailor in the navy, and we didn’t even know it.”

The two of us had a good laugh. We learned over the next few years just how helpful laughter can be. It is a tranquilizer with no harmful side effects.

Miz Lib’s wonderful physician explained the difficulty of diagnosing these problems in elderly people.  Perhaps the person had suffered mini-strokes or some sort of general dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s.  He went above and beyond the call of duty.  He assumed the responsibility of telling her she could no longer drive a car.  Another tantrum ensued.  He informed her that she could no longer live alone.  Again, she had a fit.  This loving physician took as much of the heat as he could, sparing the family.

We were determined to keep Miz Lib in her own home as long as possible. We accomplished that goal through the assistance of two loving women who cared for her around-the-clock.  While this arrangement was quite expensive, we felt it would be best to keep life as stable as possible for the woman we loved so much.  Finally the day came when we knew Miz Lib needed to move into a nursing home.

The day we brought Miz Lib the seventy-eight miles from her home to a nursing facility in our town, she was surprisingly calm.  We simply told her we were following doctor’s orders.  We appreciated her compliance but also realized that much of her spunk was gone.  Her health continued to deteriorate.

The last few months of Miz Lib’s life were difficult.  It was hard for Clare to see her mother in so much misery.  Our goal in medical treatment at that time was to do everything possible to make Miz Lib comfortable.

Near the end of her life, when she was awake and able to speak, she moaned repeatedly, “I want to go home.  I want to go home.  I want to go home.”

We first thought that she was thinking about her physical home where she had lived before being moved into the nursing home.  Then it became clear to us that she was not talking about that home at all.  Next we thought she was thinking about the home where she lived as a girl.  Clare remembered stories Miz Lib had shared about her childhood.  Miz Lib’s mother, Mother D, would put her five children to bed at night.  Then she would go down the stairs of the large Victorian home and play the music of Rachmaninoff on their grand piano.

Clare had an idea.  We purchased a simple CD player with a repeat button and several recordings of Rachmaninoff’s piano music.  We placed the player in Miz Lib’s room at the nursing home so that the familiar music would be a constant lullaby.  Miz Lib became calmer and more peaceful.  Miz Lib’s younger brother, Clare’s Uncle Jimmy, commented, “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea.  Momma always played the piano until we went to sleep.”  With the soothing music playing, Miz Lib soon fell asleep.  Eventually she went home, to her new home in heaven.

A short time before Miz Lib died, my wife and I stood outside her room at the nursing home.  I asked, “Clare, are you ready to let your mother go?”

“Yes, I feel as though she has already been gone for a long time.”

I prayed with my wife a prayer that I have prayed with many families, a simple prayer of release. Within a matter of hours, Miz Lib died.

Sometimes, death comes as a harsh intruder.  Sometimes death is a welcomed visitor, offering a gentle blessing.

That’s how it was when Miz Lib went home.

Kirk H. Neely

© September 2013

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