Different traits, mannerisms, and susceptibilities are passed down from generation to generation. In my case, I most resemble my mother’s family. My skin, hair, and eye colors come from them. My warped sense of humor has been bequeathed to me by both my father and my maternal grandmother. My affinity for music and dance and my artistic proclivities come from my mom and her kin. My love of the mountains and rolling farmland and even my nose shape are thanks to my paternal line.
High blood pressure runs in both families, and both lines have suffered heart attacks. Odds are that heart disease might be in my future, so I watch what I eat, don’t drink or smoke, try to exercise (although not as much as I should), and attempt to remain as stress-free as possible (yeah, right).
Although the threat of heart disease concerns me, I am more terrified of another health issue found in my family: dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. Two of my more recent family members suffered from Alzheimer’s: my paternal great-grandmother and my paternal grandmother.
Great-Grandma lived in a one-room apartment located in an elder complex. Her small abode was filled with fowl—photos and figurines, plates and pillows, all boasting birds. And in the center of it all, right beside my grandmother’s recliner, was a cage containing one blue and one yellow parakeet. With people, my grandmother was a woman of few words, but with those parakeets, she chattered incessantly, and they “talked” back to her. My Great-Grandma reminded me of the “bird woman” from Mary Poppins, especially when she allowed her birdies to take flight and alight on her fingers or shoulders.
Because she was not especially expressive, it took the family a while to realize that something was “off” about Great-Grandma. The doctors confirmed our suspicions. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Great-Grandma’s days of independent living would soon come to an end. When it was determined that she was no longer able to care for herself, Great-Grandma was moved to the nursing home. This was hard for her because she could no longer have her feathered friends with her. In the end, long after her memories had flown and we, her family, were strangers, Great-Grandma would spend hours sitting by the window, watching the wild birds flutter and flit.
The first time I met my Great-Grandma’s daughter, my grandmother, I was 14 years old. Up until that point, all I knew of her was her name. When my dad was 13 years old, his father was put in prison for destruction of another’s property. Because my Grandpa was poor, he was unable to post bail, so he remained behind bars. Meanwhile, my Grandma, along with their ten children, was evicted from their home. With nowhere to live, Grandma and the kids set up a shelter of logs, tin, and cloth in the woods. On 26 July 1963, the authorities intervened, and each of the minor children (my father included) were placed in temporary foster homes. Grandma remained in the woods, awaiting Grandpa’s release. Sometime after the case had been adjudicated, the courts decided that the children would not be returned to their parents’ care, and each underage child was placed in permanent foster care. My grandparents packed up their meager belongings and left the area and their children behind.
For two decades, my paternal grandparents moved from town to town and racetrack to racetrack where my Grandfather would train racehorses. Their children also moved on, marrying and starting their own families. Little to no contact occurred between parents and children. That is, until the 1980s when my grandparents showed up in my hometown. Both Grandpa and Grandma were suffering from serious health issues; one of Grandma’s more severe afflictions was Alzheimer’s. It took about a year for the disease to progress to the point that Grandma had to be placed in the county nursing home.
We visited Grandma often, even though she had no idea who we were. She rarely spoke; mostly, she just smiled and held our hands. Although she was not particularly chatty, I do remember the time Grandma assured me that I was “a handsome young man” and that someday I would “find a nice girl.” Even though that was a blow to my teenage pride (Mom, I don’t really look like a boy, do I?), I knew that reacting would just upset Grandma, so I simply said, “Thank you.” That was the last time she spoke to me.
Alzheimer’s disease not only steals people’s memories, but it also affects them emotionally and physically. Emotionally, Alzheimer’s patients often have mood swings, fluctuating between mania and depression or “blowing up” in bouts of rage. Pervasive sadness and explosive anger became commonplace for both my grandmothers. They both also displayed repetitive movement and behavior (much like obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD), lost their fine motor skills (couldn’t sew, use remotes, or turn pages of a book), and could no longer walk properly (both became wheelchair-bound). With each loss or change, both my Great-Grandmother and my Grandmother became frustrated or disoriented. Little-by-little, who they were was disappearing. A slow death, Alzheimer’s stripped their life away—one ability, one memory at a time.