Jun 23, 2013

The Lucky Ones

“Hello, my name is Mary Lou, and I have Alzheimer’s,” she’d say.

By Linda Halstead-Acharya
+Alzheimer's Reading Room 

When her doctor voiced the “A” word over the phone, my mother’s heart must have skipped more than a beat. In 2003, on my mother's 70th birthday, the neurologist called to report her test results.

By process of elimination, he told her, it appeared she was experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Lucky Ones

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Though her heart must have skipped a beat, her life never did. In fact, my mother, the lifelong worrier, suddenly embraced the power of acceptance. She dropped all pretenses, quit worrying and almost seemed to relish the reason for whatever must have already begun to tangle her inner thoughts. Suddenly she could offer a built-in excuse for every memory lapse and unusual behavior.

By outward appearances, Mom was lucid and normal, though I’m sure she suffered the same memory lapses -- Where did I park the car? What was that phone number I just looked up? – that plague every one of us. But was she also privy to the beginnings of her own inner torment? Either I never thought to ask or I was too frightened to know.

For months after the doctor’s verdict, she greeted old friends by declaring her diagnosis. When introduced to new faces, she always included as part of her intro the disease that had come to inhabit her mind.

“Hello, my name is Mary Lou, and I have Alzheimer’s,” she’d say.

Though just the mere mention of the “A” word had long terrified her, she faced the diagnosis with grace and resolve.

As years passed and the disease snarled more of her grey matter, she would often proclaim her good fortune at having Alzheimer’s instead of, say, cancer.

“I could be in pain,” she said, truly believing herself lucky. “But I’m not.”

It’s hard to consider oneself blessed by fate when Alzheimer’s slinks into the brain of a loved one. My mother considered herself lucky because she suffered no pain. I considered ourselves lucky because we were spared Alzheimer’s most malicious expression.

In what could be described as the most heartless double whammy of all, some Alzheimer’s victims turn downright mean and ugly. It’s not unusual for the patient’s confusion to evolve into anger – and understandably so. Almost overnight, some turn from kind and caring to nasty.

But the more I learn about Alzheimer’s and the more I experienced the disease firsthand, the more I believe that appropriate care and attention can lessen or even eliminate that cruel transition.

It’s true that months after my mother’s diagnosis, she assumed a caustic edge. Rarely contrary or combative beforehand, she began voicing her views and taking a stand. At the time, I wondered whether to chalk it up to the disease. Or, knowing her time was finite, was she merely expressing her frustration?

I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. And I’m not sure what difference it makes. All I know is that the phase lasted barely a matter of months.

Since then and until the end – she passed away in December of 2011, more than eight years after that dreaded diagnosis -- my mother’s good nature returned and prevailed.

And for that, we are not only thankful. We are lucky.

***Linda Halstead-Acharya, a former reporter for the Billings Gazette in Billings, Montana, is now a freelance writer working on a book about her experience with Alzheimer's disease. Before losing her mother to advanced Alzheimer's disease in December 2011, she provided support for her father, her mother's prime caregiver.


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