Wanda was one of my favorite ladies of the church I attended for over a quarter of a century.
She'd see me and make her way over to me and wrap her arm around me and give me a big squeeze as she engaged in some teasing banter to kid me about something. She was ornery in a wholesome way. Wanda, who was in her 70's, had a sparkle of mischief, like a fun-loving kid behind an older person's facade. She'd call me her favorite, and with an arm refusing to let go the whole time, I believed it.
A few years ago I had heard through the grapevine that Wanda had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and that she didn't know close people anymore.
To be honest, I hadn't given much thought about Wanda since I've chosen a different church to attend. Two Sundays ago I went to lunch with my dad and stepmom in Oakdale and before I could set down at the table a grey-haired gentleman who looked somewhat familiar spoke to me from the next booth, asking if I moved to that town. He had a friendly smile on his face. It took me a while to register that this was Wanda's husband. The much greyer hair was evidence that caretaking had taken its toll on him. I explained that I did indeed move but not to Oakdale. It was then that I noticed that Wanda was with him. As he helped her out of the booth and assisted her putting on a sweater, he gave me a sideways look and shook his head as if to warn me in that Wanda wouldn't know me. I decided to try to say hi. Wanda looked at me and I said, "Hi Wanda! It's good to see you!"
Nothing registered. She didn't speak a word. Her eyes saw only a stranger. There was no sparkle. No hug. No teasing. Her body was there, but she wasn't Wanda.
In seconds they were shuffling out the door and as I sat down, my stepmom noticed tears welling up in my eyes. I explained what had just happened, just out of the blue.
Alzheimer's is a wretched thief.
Years ago, in the same church circle, was a woman named Allison Bodes. Allison and her husband Ken faithfully served the church for decades. They were devoted to youth, led a number of teen trips and supported church camps. After my friend Ken passed away, Allison developed Alzheimer's. She was sent to live in a rest home in Oakdale. When we went to visit Allison she acted like she had no idea who we were. She said some strange things. She spoke about a second floor where there was no second floor and about the bad weather outside even though it was a sunny day. "Well, I guess you folks had better go," she said in minutes as a cue that it was time to go. It was an awkward visit. I never saw Allison again. I read about her passing in the obituary column.
Alzheimer's is a dreadful disease. Chances are that you've known somebody who has developed it. If you haven't experienced the pain of seeing a human being robbed of their mind and personality, watch "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me" (now on Netflix). It depicts how one of my favorite childhood music icons has been devastated, along with his family, by the disease. I had flashbacks to the summer of 1985 when I spent a half-hour interviewing Glen backstage at the Stanislaus County Fair. He had just exited his stormy period of drug abuse with Tanya Tucker.
There was another famous person who was robbed by Alzheimer's. Just ask Nancy Reagan.
I had a chance in May 1994 to visit Bel-Air Presbyterian Church in Bel-Air to see Ronald Reagan in the flesh. His limo rolled up right at 11 a.m. and he slowly ambled toward the church with Nancy ahead of him. I lined up to shake his hand and saw how dazed and confused he seemed. The towering figure focused next on me and I said, "Hi, President Reagan, how are you?" as our hands met. It was a surreal moment in time. "Fine, how are you?" he replied in his famous voice, now very quiet and husky. He also shook my mom's hand. We left and told my mother that something seemed vapid and distant about Mr. Reagan. Six months later he announced he had Alzheimer's. He disappeared from the American landscape and died in 2004.
There are some startling statistics about the disease:
• Alzheimer's is always fatal, even though it can take up to 12 years for a patient to die from it.
• About 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's, as opposed to 1.2 million with HIV.
• A third to half of those over the age of 85 will get Alzheimer's.
• Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of U.S. deaths.
• It is the only of the top 10 death causes in America that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed.
• One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer's or another dementia.
• Alzheimer's and other dementias cost the nation $226 billion in 2015. By 2050, these costs could rise as high as $1.1 trillion.
• Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer's are women.
• Older Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely than older whites to develop Alzheimer's and other dementias.
• Between 2000 and 2013, deaths attributed to Alzheimer's disease increased 71 percent, while those attributed to the number one cause of death - heart disease - decreased 14 percent.
As if it's not bad enough that Alzheimer's takes a devastating toll on the patient, it is tremendously cruel for the caregivers, typically a healthy spouse of family member. Nearly 60 percent of caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high; about 40 percent suffer from depression. Due to the physical and emotional toll of caregiving, caregivers had $9.7 billion in additional health care costs of their own in 2014.
Who gets Alzheimer's? There's no exact predictor but the older you get, the greater your chances of getting it. According to the Alzheimer's Association, there is a link between family history and genetics and getting the disease. Most experts believe that the majority of Alzheimer's cases occur as a result of complex interactions among genes and other risk factors. Age, family history and heredity are all risk factors we can't change. Now, research is beginning to reveal clues about other risk factors we may be able to influence through lifestyle and wellness choices and effective management of other health conditions.
Head trauma can increase the risk. There is also evidence that brain health is linked to heart health. Every time your heart beats, 20 to 25 percent of that blood goes to your brain where brain cells use at least 20 percent of the food and oxygen your blood carries. Thus, damage to your heart or the blood vessels in your body can affect the brain and increase the chance for Alzheimer's. So, you've got to monitor or take care of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol. A possibly reason why Latinos and blacks have a higher incidence of Alzheimer's is because they have a higher rate of vascular disease.
Reagan had both the head trauma of falling off a horse in Mexico and his mother Nellie suffered from senility.
It's believed that a person can lower their risk for Alzheimer's by keeping weight within recommended guidelines, avoid tobacco and excess alcohol, stay socially connected, and exercise both your body and mind. Surprisingly, education may lower the risk. Learning new things in old age can help, such as taking classes, learning languages, playing musical instruments, etc.
There are still many myths about Alzheimer's, such as that using aluminum pots, or drinking out of aluminum cans or using antiperspirants. It's also a myth that aspartame causes memory loss or that flu shots or silver dental fillings increases the risk of Alzheimer's.
While groups clamor and push for more funding for HIV and AIDS research - despite there being obvious ways to avoid getting those diseases - there is less of a push for a disease that affects many more people. More than $200 billion is spent annually treating Alzheimer's, which is more than 400 times the amount spent on finding a cure. For every dollar the federal government spends today on the costs of Alzheimer's care, it invests less than a penny in research to find a cure.
The research community believes it is possible to prevent or control the disease within a decade with a disciplined strategy that is adequately funded. To succeed, advocacy groups say lawmakers must make fighting Alzheimer's a national priority and implement a clear plan for a cure.
U.S. Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., who lost his mother to Alzheimer's, is trying to raise a consciousness in Congress to expanding dollars for Alzheimer's research. He said the federal government spends as much as one bomber carrying nuclear weapons as it does on Alzheimer's research.
Much attention is paid to cancer research, and for good reason. It seems more attention is needed in Alzheimer's research.
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