, 2014

Alzheimer’s touches home

Series concludes
by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

I lost my grandfather to complications from Alzheimer’s disease eight months ago, the day after Valentine’s Day. He had just been selected as the Sweetheart King at Farnham Manor, where he spent the last year of his life.

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My grandfather, William L. Parks, or Pop-Pop as he was known to many, was a waterman whose family had migrated to Lancaster County’s waterfront village of Morattico from Tangier Island in 1933 when he was 7 years old. On many evenings, during the last years of his life, he’d ask to go back to his boyhood home on the Chesapeake Bay island. Although he was sitting in the living room of the house where he’d lived most of his life, his mind wasn’t connecting that house as his home. He was living in a different time period.

The desire to return to a childhood home is a common request of Alzheimer’s patients, according to Frank McCarthy, who serves on the Northern Neck/Middle Peninsula advisory board of the Alzheimer’s Association.

McCarthy and other association directors and volunteers chaired a “Reason to Hope” breakfast in Lancaster County in October as a means of increasing awareness of the disease and raising funds for the association. I was the Record reporter assigned to cover the breakfast, but as soon as McCarthy asked people who had a loved one with the disease to stand, I was personally drawn in.

The stories from caregivers sounded all too familiar. There’s the paranoia and hallucinations that come with Sundown Syndrome. There are items lost and hidden. There’s the repetitive conversations and familiar names of items and people that can’t be remembered. There are the accusations and anger directed at caregivers. And there are the requests to return home and the inquiries about loved ones already deceased.

I remember the first time my grandfather asked me why my mother hadn’t come to his house in so long, and my telling him mom had died several years earlier. He looked so distraught and sadly said, “Oh that’s right, I remember.” It was as if I was telling him for the first time he’d lost a child. After that I would change the subject or say mom was coming another time.

During the last two years of his life my grandfather never called me by my name, and I think he thought I was my mom. I never corrected him.

The first time I realized my grandfather was struggling with dementia was 12 years ago exactly when my daughter was born on December 1. My aunt, Lorraine Dixon, called to tell him the good news — the baby had arrived. His answer was simply, “What baby?” He said he must have forgotten I was pregnant.

Gradually, the disease progressed. I think he hid it well for many years until my mother died in 2005. Our family doctor warned us that a traumatic event like the loss of a spouse or child may accelerate the disease, and it did.

My aunt was burdened with the primary caregiving, paying his bills, doing his grocery shopping, cooking for him and staying with him most nights. We had private duty sitters a few nights a week and my brother and I took turns spending the night. But as the disease progressed, caregiving became more than we could handle. My husband’s grandmother had died from Alzheimer’s years before my grandfather was ever diagnosed so, unfortunately, I knew what to expect.

When Pop-Pop became too unsteady on his feet — falling several times in a 24-hour period — his family doctor recommended round-the-clock supervision. And eventually, the difficult decision was made to move Pop-Pop from his home to Farnham Manor, where the nurses and staff were compassionate and faithful to his needs. It was the right decision.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, every 68 seconds someone develops the disease. In Virginia, more than 130,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s. Once referred to as senility, it is now the sixth leading cause of death in America.

Sadly, the disease has touched both my family and my husband’s family. Watching someone you love struggle to remember names, carry on a conversation or ask for a deceased loved one is heartbreaking. And it’s something no one should have to do.

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