Monday, February 4, 2008
Now close your eyes. What do you think of? Who do you see? I see an eighty-five-year old woman with short, white hair, wrinkled skin, and polyester pants. I see her forgetting when she ate breakfast and when she was born. Forgetting where the bathroom is and where she lives. Forgetting the name of the United States President and the names of her children. I see her forgetting her own name. Forgetting me. I see my grandmother.
You might have imagined your own grandmother. Or your elderly parent. Maybe you don’t know anyone with Alzheimer’s. Maybe you imagined Gena Rowlands in The Notebook or Julie Christie in Away From Her.
Most of us know what Alzheimer’s disease looks like. Or do we?
Like most people who come to know Alzheimer’s in a loved one, I’ve read and learned a lot about this disease, from the molecular and clinical to the self-help and how-to-care-for. But for the most part, what we know about Alzheimer’s is gleaned from experience with elderly people diagnosed well into the progression of this disease. Because we as a culture expect eighty-year-olds to be normally forgetful, because retired grandparents are no longer accountable to corporate bosses, because they don’t have to produce a certain number and quality of widgets each day, because they might be widowed and living alone with no one to regularly witness the full extent of what is happening, because it is far easier to deny what is happening well after we suspect it or even trip over it, we don’t usually see Alzheimer’s in its beginning.
And unfortunately, once this disease marches past the beginning, we can no longer really know what that beginning was like. Beyond the beginning, clogged synapses, faulty neurotransmission, inflammation, and cell death take the upper hand. Beyond the beginning, those parts of the brain that mediate memory and language and that inform awareness and identity become increasingly inaccessible. People with Alzheimer’s who’ve deteriorated past the beginning stages can no longer remember the recent time period of their personal history that was ‘the beginning’. They can’t describe what it feels like to have Alzheimer’s Disease because those communications skills aren’t working. And more confounding, they may no longer be capable of understanding that they even have Alzheimer’s disease.
We know what Alzheimer’s disease is like from the point of view of the tireless, loving caregiver. We know what it is like from the point of view of the Hollywood director. But, what is having Alzheimer’s disease like from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s? What does the face and voice of early-onset Alzheimer’s look and sound like?
Lisa Genova, Ph.D., author of STILL ALICE, www.StillAlice.com