Monday, August 1, 2011

Building Neural Roads

Whether you have Alzheimer’s or are of a certain age that you’ve started routinely forgetting where you put your keys, you’re probably hearing a lot about the benefits of “exercising your brain.” We hear this “use it or lose it” philosophy mentioned frequently in sound bytes from medical experts, but what are they really asking us to do? And why? Are they just trying to get us to do lots and lots of crossword puzzles?

Here’s what they mean. Let’s think of the neurons in your head as roads, and let’s say you’re trying to remember a piece of information. Let’s say you’re trying to remember my name: Lisa Genova. When you think, “What is her name?” your brain starts looking for the road that will take it to the answer. You might travel down the road “Author of STILL ALICE” to get to Lisa Genova.

If that’s the only piece of information you know about me, you might have a hard time at first finding that one and only road. And because it hasn’t been well-traveled, the road might be small, unlabelled, maybe not even paved. It might take you a few minutes (or all day!) to remember my name.

But if you loved the book, if it stays with you after you finish the last page, if you talk about the book with friends and at book club, if you travel this particular road over and over, or in other words, if you practice and rehearse this information, “Lisa Genova is the author of STILL ALICE,” then the road becomes stronger. It becomes simple to find with a nicely labeled street sign, and it’s now wider and paved. After many experiences with “Lisa Genova is the author of STILL ALICE,” this road becomes familiar territory, smooth and easy to travel on. You now know my name and can remember it easily.

But what happens if you are in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, and amyloid-beta is starting to clog some of your synapses? Imagine amyloid-beta as a roadblock, keeping you from traveling down that road that leads to the information you’re looking for. What if amyloid beta is blocking the “Author of STILL ALICE” road to Lisa Genova. If this is the one and only road to my name, and it is blocked, then you can’t retrieve my name. Now when you ask yourself, “Who is the author of STILL ALICE?” you cannot remember no matter how hard you think. The information is inaccessible. Forgotten.

But let’s say you paved more than one road to my name. Let’s say you also built “Author of LEFT NEGLECTED Street” and “Neuroscientist from Harvard Avenue.” Now you can have a roadblock on “Author of STILL ALICE Road” and still have two other ways to get to my name. These other roads may not be the most direct routes to my name if you haven’t traveled them as much, but they’ll still lead you to Lisa Genova. You can still remember me.

The more connections you make to a piece of information (the more roads you build) and the more you use or rehearse that information (the more you travel those roads), the more able you’ll be to detour clogged connections (amyloid beta road blocks), and remember what you’re trying to remember.

Say you learn ten things about me. You've built ten neural roads. And now let's say you have Alzheimer's. You can have nine roadblocks, a significant amount of memory loss. But you still have one road left. You can still remember my name.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

When is it Normal and When is it Alzheimer's?

Since the release of Still Alice, I’ve had the privilege of talking to a lot of audiences about Alzheimer’s. One of the most common questions people ask me is:

“When I can’t find my keys, how do I know if that’s normal forgetting or a symptom of Alzheimer’s?”

My quick and dirty answers are usually something like:

“Well, when you find your keys, are they on the table or in the refrigerator?”


“We all have trouble finding where we put our keys. It’s worrisome if you find your keys and then can’t remember what you’re supposed to do with them.”

Forgetting keys, names, how to get somewhere, how to do something–How do we know when it’s normal and when it’s Alzheimer’s?

The Alzheimer’s Association has put together the 10 Warning Signs List.

They also provide this phone number if you’d like to talk to someone about your concerns: 877 IS IT ALZ

My friend Kris recently shared one of her early warning signs (warning sign #4) with me:

My biggest tell-tale sign was when I’d gone shopping with my husband, and we went to a Best Buy store. I was looking at some CDs, and my husband had gone off somewhere else, and I looked up from the CDs, and I didn’t know where I was or how I had gotten there. It’s kind of hard to be in a Best Buy store and not know you’re in a Best Buy store, you know, with all the Best Buy signs everywhere. The only way I can describe it, and it’s so funny because in your book it was like this, it’s like an out of body experience.

I remember going out of the store to look at my surroundings, and I looked at the sign, but I couldn’t read that it was Best Buy. I saw the sign, but I couldn’t put together that I was at the Best Buy store. So I remember sitting down on the steps in front of the store and thinking, ‘Well, I got here somehow, I’m just going to have to figure out how I got here.’

I sat there for a while and then went back in the store, and I recognized my husband. And I thought, ‘OK. I got here with him, I’m still not sure where I am, but I got here with him and I’m okay because I know I can get home with him.’ And I didn’t say anything to him. I just followed him out to the car, got in the car, went home, and that night I still could not remember where I had been.

I didn’t want to alarm my husband about it, so just jokingly I said to him, ‘You know, I know we went out today, but I can’t remember where we went.’

He said, ‘We went to Best Buy.’

And I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’

How old were you?


When I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I was relieved because now I knew there was a name to it. I know there’s no cure, and it broke my heart, but by the same token, now I knew what I was dealing with and that I wasn’t crazy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Valley of the Baby Dolls

I recently read ‘DANCING WITH ROSE: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s’ by Lauren Kessler. In it, she reveals the inner life of an Alzheimer’s care facility. I liked so much about this book but want to share one part in particular for now.

Early on in her job at the care facility, Kessler tells us about a group of ‘doll mothers.’

“One lady is sitting in the rocking chair, rocking her doll back and forth, back and forth, her eyes half-closed, her lips upturned in a half-smile. She has that dreamy look mothers have when they rock their babies. At one of the dining room tables sit Billie and two other doll mothers, all holding their swaddled babies to their chests.”

She goes on to describe both the residents and the workers fussing over the dolls, everyone playing along as if the dolls were real babies.

My grandmother who had Alzheimer’s did this. She used to sit on her couch and hug them and coo at them. I think there were two dolls. I vaguely remember a stuffed bear named Henry as well, but it was the dolls she loved and mothered. I remember hearing her tell them how beautiful they were.

The first time I saw my grandmother doing this, it scared me. This was my grandmother who’d raised nine real babies now taking great care to swaddle a plastic doll. I looked to my Aunt Mary, my grandmother’s primary caregiver, for some explanation or reassurance that this behavior was somehow ‘normal’. She just looked back at me and said, “Shoot me when.”

My grandmother’s relationship with these doll babies went on for a long time. I never got used to it. What was going on inside her head? Did she honestly believe they were real babies? Was she just pretending? Did she think they were her babies or was she babysitting? By mothering and comforting these dolls, was she somehow feeling mothered and comforted herself?

I never asked her. I felt too embarrassed, too unnerved. I don’t know why they made her happy, but I know they did. Has anyone else seen this happen? Does it only happen with women with Alzheimer’s? What do you think is going on?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What Rich Hopes For

In the picture I’d seen of Rich on the internet prior to meeting him, he has short brown hair and a full beard covering his face. He’s wearing a white T-shirt under a denim blue, button-down shirt. He is not smiling. He looks menacing. It occurs to me that the photograph could pass for a police mug shot!

In person, he appears nothing like this unflattering picture of him on the internet. Rich is blond and smiles with blue eyes that are kind and sparkle. His face is clean-shaven, smooth and pink, the kind of gentle face my grandmother would’ve unabashedly approached and patted on both cheeks while saying, “Aren’t you handsome?” He looks at least a decade younger than his online picture and even younger than he is. Rich is fifty years old. He has Alzheimer's.

I learn that Rich has a masters degree in journalism and was the managing editor at a major newspaper for four years when his first symptoms began. It had been his job to assign stories to writers and photographers and edit stories. He made sure everything came together. He was highly competent and loved his job. He loved the written word.

Suddenly and inexplicably, Rich became tired, the kind of abnormal tired that sleep could not restore.

“My job typically needed me twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week. I’d go to work and last at my desk for ten minutes.”

He was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He could no longer work. Everything stopped.

“I know fatigue is a part of Alzheimer’s disease, and I know this disease is very strange and shows up differently for different people. But I still don’t know if the fatigue was due to Alzheimer’s or something else.”

His next symptom didn’t fall under the classic heading of ‘forgetting’ either.

“I started experiencing auditory hallucinations. These are very disturbing. I’d be in another room, and I’d hear the TV on, but I wouldn’t remember turning the TV on. I’d go in the other room, and the TV wasn’t on. I’d think, ‘Why am I hearing the TV?’ So I’d turn the TV on. Now I’d hear the actual TV AND the TV that I was hearing in my head.

Or I’d be listening to the stereo to a CD that I’ve been listening to for thirty years, and I know well what it sounds like. Then this harpsichord music would begin playing over it. And I’d think, ‘Well that shouldn’t be there, that doesn’t have anything to do with this!’ So I’d turn it off, so the CD music wasn’t playing anymore, but the harpsichord music was still there.”

About half of people with Alzheimer’s disease experience auditory and visual hallucinations. But Rich didn’t know this at the time.

“Then I was getting lost. I’ve pretty much lived in Los Angeles for most of my life and, I’ve been driving since I was sixteen years old. I was going to places that I’ve been to a thousand times, and I was just completely getting lost and not knowing how to get back. And again, I know this city like the back of my hand. I know it’s a complicated city, it’s not like living in a small town, but you drive Los Angeles. I went to school at USC. I know this city. And I was getting off the freeway and not knowing where I was. I was getting freaked out. My doctor just kept poo-pooing it and dismissing me. He really just didn’t listen to me.”

His doctor told him he was too old to have schizophrenia. He told him he clearly wasn’t depressed. Rich knew what he didn’t have. But he didn’t have any answers either.

So how did you get to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?

“My insurance changed, and I saw a new doctor and told him what had been going on. He said, ‘I don’t like the way this sounds’ and sent me for an MRI, a PET scan, and neuropsychological testing.

So I went and had the MRI and the PET and didn’t know the results. Then I went for the neuropsych testing which was eight hours a day for two days, and it actually spilled over, so it was probably a little more. It was exhausting. This may sound funny, but while I was taking the test, I was blowing it, but I didn’t know it. And she (the woman who administered the test) didn’t give it away. She just kept saying, ‘Good! Great!’ Encouraged by this, I would continue reading passages and answering questions. I thought I was acing the test! I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but she had me read at the twelfth grade level, and I got all the answers wrong. And she just kept moving down—eleventh grade, tenth grade, nineth, eighth, seventh. She stopped when I could finally answer some of the questions right, somewhere at grade school level. I was completely unaware that I wasn’t getting them all right.

At the end of the last day of testing, she had her report and my doctor had the scan results, and we all had the conversation. The MRI was clean, but the PET scan showed atrophy and hypoperfusion in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. And all the mistakes I’d made in the neuropsych tests made sense in terms of where the deficits were on my PET scan. The doctor told me I had Alzheimer’s disease.”

What did hearing those two words do to you?

“I was really devastated. This was never on my radar at all. I was thinking brain tumor. Not that I wanted one, of course, but that’s what I was thinking.”

How did your life change after diagnosis?

“Emotionally, I went to a very dark place. I don’t talk about this too much, but I really did consider suicide. My mind went to where most people’s minds go when they think of Alzheimer’s. I kept thinking of lying in a bed somewhere, and I didn’t want to. So I thought, ‘Why not just cut to the end now?’ For about two months, I was in really bad despair. Then I talked with Michelle (the Director of Programs at the Los Angeles Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Assocation). She spent a couple of hours with me and listened to me and referred me to an early stage support group. That was really the turning point for me, having a place to connect with other people. That very first support group, I met Jay, and we went to lunch. We just have this connection, that kind of bond with someone where you’re able to talk openly about what you’re going through.”

Through his support group in Los Angeles, through online support groups, and through the Early Stage Advisory Panel for the National Alzheimer’s Association, Rich has forged many new and intimate relationships with others who have young onset Alzheimer’s. Finding others navigating similar waters gave Rich what he needed—real life examples of people living with Alzheimer’s. Not lying in a bed somewhere.

How did your existing relationships change after diagnosis?

“The person who has known me the longest has had a really hard time with this. She kept saying, ‘You don’t have this. Don’t say it. They’re wrong.’ Whatever process I had to go through to accept my diagnosis, get beyond my own denial, and deal with it, it was painful. But I went through it, and I accept my diagnosis. I want to tell people like her, ‘Don’t make me try to convince you for fifteen minutes that I have Alzheimer’s!’ But I have to go through that with people. With this one friend of mine, I had to keep going through this with her. She just wouldn’t believe me.

Then, I’ll tell her a story about me forgetting something that could never be mistaken for normal, and she’ll go to the other guardrail. Now she’ll say, “You can’t live at home alone anymore! You can’t be taking care of your mother! You need to sell your house!” Suddenly, I’m completely incompetent. And before that it was all, ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you’ over and over. There’s no gray area. It’s just either or.”

I think this is a hard thing for people who aren’t familiar with Alzheimer’s Disease to understand, that it isn’t zero to end stage. When you were first diagnosed, your thoughts went straight to being in the fetal position in a bed somewhere, right?

“Right. I’ve learned differently.”

Tell me what a good day is for you.

“A good day is going to my support group, meeting with friends, staying connected with people. I like reading the New York Times. It makes me feel connected to the world. But when I read the newspaper now, it takes me so long to read it. I’ll read an article and two minutes later have no comprehension of it. So I’ll have to read it again and again and again. It’s really frustrating, especially because of what I used to do for a living. I used to not only read stories but edit them and make them better. So it’s really disconcerting to me. Audiobooks are somewhat easier. I sometimes put things on my iPod and listen to them. I sometimes have better recall aurally. And if I like something, I’ll put it on again. And it’s almost as if I haven’t heard it before. That can be nice because it’s like experiencing something all brand new.”

What did you hope for your future before Alzheimer’s disease?

“My dream was to live in New York and work as a journalist for the New York Times.”

What do you hope for now?

“A cure.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What's Your Motto?

Back when I was doing a lot of pre-publication interviews for STILL ALICE, I was asked, “What’s your motto?” I had to think for a minute, and then I said,

“Say YES whenever possible.”

I’d never been forced to put this idea into words before, but I do believe in this philosophy, and it guides me a lot in my life. Since that interview, I’ve started thinking more about mottos and how they can influence how we choose to live.

I asked my friends who have dementia what their mottos are, and I’ve posted them here. If you have a motto, a life lesson, or advice you’d like to share, please feel free to add a comment here, and I’ll add it to the list.

What is YOUR motto?

At the time I started on my journey of getting a diagnosis, I heard this song by Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying. This song and 
the words have the meaning of the rest of my life. I am really trying 
to “live like I was dying.”

My earlier mottos have lost much of their relevance for me, but the one that has come to be the most dear to me is from an ad in a yoga magazine in 2002 . It’s pretty tattered by now. It is a pen & ink drawing of a Buddha on a surfboard on a huge snake of eternity and the motto is: “In the face of eternity….Style” Which to me means: Don’t go out with a whimper. Savor every moment! Ride the wave of life into the beyond!
–Jaye Lander, 62 this month, Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease

I keep this with me as I 

 “Change happens when ordinary people see extraordinary people, get to know 
them and see what they can do.” 

(as read in The Vancouver Sun newspaper, May 31, 2008)

I have three mottos that I go by. The first two are quotes by Helen Keller: 

”Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”


”Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” Then my personal one is: Keep on keeping on!
–Lynn Jackson

“You are mostly measured in life by how you deal with your losses and reversals. Handle them with grace placing positive spin on them.” This is my working motto/theme. I am a 72 year old retired trial lawyer who is Alzheimer’s Afflicted. I was diagnosed 2 years ago in Early Stage. I am working hard at staying here for as long as I can. My intent while here is to make a difference advocating for economy in patient long term care and letting anyone interested know it is not nearly as bad having it as worrying about getting it.
–Mike Donohue

“I don’t have time to worry about what I can’t do — I’m too busy enjoying what I can do.”
“Nothing I’ve seen since is as scary as the bombs falling on the farm in WWII when I was a little girl.”

Live in the moment — life’s too short to worry about the future. Enjoy every day you have.
–Kris Bakowski, Early stage Alzheimer’s, 53 years old.

My favorite motto is: “Act enthusiastic & you’ll be enthusiastic.” It
has been my favorite for many years and still applies. Guess it’s sort
of like “fake it until you make it.” I also believe our ultimate purpose
in life is to help others.
–Sharon in KS, diagnosed with FTD in 2/2007 & changed to MCI in 9/2008

“I’m living my life like there’s no tomorrow.”
And that boils down to spending as much time as possible with my family and friends, and doing as much music as time allows.

I would like to share Kris’ motto “Live in the moment — life’s too short to worry about the future. Enjoy every day you have”
and include “Don’t worry. Worry alone will not improve the out come. Be happy. Seek happiness”
–Darryl White – from the frozen tundra of Wisconsin

” Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Goethe.
–Chuck Jackson

Friday, September 24, 2010

Treatment Without Numbers

I know a widely-respected neurologist at a prestigious, teaching hospital who once said,

“Treating dementia is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”

And he’s not alone in the medical community with this philosophy. I’ve heard many stories of doctors, both neurologists and general practice physicians, who are reluctant to prescribe treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. They believe that the current drugs available don’t make a difference. They believe the current drugs are not cost effective.

Aricept and Namenda do not cure Alzheimer’s.
They do not stop the progression of the disease.
The cognitive capabilities of everyone who has Alzheimer’s Disease will get worse despite taking these medications.
No one gets out of Alzheimer’s alive.

But what about quality of life? What about the value of making each day a little less foggy, less frustrating, less isolated, less stressful for as long as possible? What about living as fully as possible with whatever time you have?

Do doctors not bother to prescribe calcium channel blockers or statins to elderly patients with heart disease because they’re likely going to die soon anyway? Are patients with cancer denied surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation if it’s known that these treatments will only buy time before the cancer ultimately kills them?

In the diagnosis and treatment of any patient, doctors have been trained to measure and quantify. Cholesterol levels are measured. There is a number. Blood pressure is taken. There’s another number. Patients are given medication, and doctors look to these numbers to evaluate whether the treatment is working. The number changed. The treatment worked.

There is no dementia protein that can be measured in the blood. There is often nothing visible in a brain scan. There is no number physicians can point to that can measure discrete changes in cognition. A doctor can’t put a patient with Alzheimer’s on Aricept or Namenda and then in six months say, “Things look great. We see a 25% decline in the accumulation of amyloid beta in your brain.” Or, “Wonderful. Your glutamatergic neurotransmission is up significantly.”

But just because there’s no numerical index of biological improvement that can currently be measured, it doesn’t mean the improvement isn’t there.

We’re all on the Titanic. We’re all going to die. For those of you with Alzheimer’s disease who are taking an Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitor (Aricept, Exelon, Reminyl) and/or Namenda, do you feel like you’re just pointlessly rearranging the deck chairs?

Tell us what you notice about your capabilities and mental health while on these medications. What value do these drugs have for you? Caregivers, tell us what you notice.

What do we know without knowing any numbers?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Life Lessons from the Dementia Care Conference

I attended the annual Dementia Care Conference in Chicago back in the summer of 2007. I was there to promote my then self-published novel, STILL ALICE, and to meet with and interview six people with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Two of the six I’d already become good friends with over the past year. I knew the others more recently and less intimately. But I knew all of them only virtually, through emails and phone calls, and I couldn’t wait to know these friends of mine in three dimensions and in real time.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s is Alzheimer’s before the age of 65. My friends here are all young, in their forties, fifties, and sixties. They are all also in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so they are still able to articulate their stories. I sat with each person and asked questions aimed at understanding what it is like to live with Alzheimer’s Disease. We talked about the things you might expect, about the dramatic changes that this disease precipitates—the abrupt end to fast-paced, high-powered, personally-fulfilling careers, a shift in or relinquishing of certain responsibilities at home, and planning for a new kind of future, one they never had imagined having to age into. We talked about loss of status, loss of friendships, anger, and denial.

But then, each and every person told me about the significant ways in which they are truly and deeply happy and at peace in their lives. Even now, I hesitate typing these words. I don’t want to oversimplify or minimize. I don’t mean to romanticize this disease. This disease is dark and brutal and rips apart neurons and relationships and dreams for the future. Maybe this is surprising to hear, but there was very little talk in these conversations of doom and gloom, heartbreaking sadness, the grim reaper lurking in the shadows behind us. What I witnessed, without exception and over and over, was a joy and gratitude for life.

I saw a mental calmness and clarity, not despair or emptiness. These individuals are highly focused on the stuff that matters and undistracted by the stuff that doesn’t. They have a laugh-out-loud sense of humor about their disease. They have a strong sense of purpose and spirituality and connection to God. They are all extremely present in their lives, available to their families and loved ones and unafraid of expressing their love for them. They are all exercising and eating healthy diets. They are all living fully in the moment, these friends of mine with Alzheimer’s Disease. I felt relaxed, happy, and inspired talking with them.

They and I realize that this is all for now. For now, Alzheimer’s is a story without a happy ending. For now, this disease eventually laughs in the face of Aricept and kicks Namenda aside as it marches on its path of destruction. But for now, Aricept and Namenda are holding their ground enough. For now, my friends with Alzheimer’s are able to actively participate in life, to advocate for people with Alzheimer’s, to enjoy their families and friends and what is beautiful in the world around them, and to love fully. And they do.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Finding Your Kaleidoscopes

You’re at a party in the middle of telling a story about your favorite childhood toy, but you can’t for the life of you come up with its name.

“Oh, what’s it called?” you ask yourself as you rummage around in your brain.

This classic tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is something most people experience occasionally. For some usually frustrating period of time, a word that is stored in long-term memory refuses to be grabbed and recalled. Most people know they know it and have access to some aspect of the target word while in this state, like its meaning, the first letter, or the number of syllables.

“I know it begins with the letter K.”

Eventually, either through concentrated effort, bumping into the right associations, or when no longer consciously focusing on hunting it down, the word magically surfaces.


The average twenty-five-year-old experiences one to two tip-of-the-tongues a week. And the frequency of this normal phenomenon does increase with age. But for someone with Alzheimer’s, missing words interfere far more often and typically don’t offer helpful clues. These missing words aren’t so much on the tip of the tongue, ready to spit themselves out. They’re hiding somewhere deep in the brain. For someone with Alzheimer’s, this difficulty with recalling the names of everyday names and objects is called “anomia.”

Here’s where the concept of ‘exercising your brain’ or cognitive retraining can be extremely helpful. If you’re experiencing anomia and having trouble getting to the word KALEIDOSCOPE because amyloid beta goo is blocking the main roads to it, then having other, goo-free roads that lead to KALEIDOSCOPE can help you.

If you only have two neurons that have learned to connect to the word KALEIDOSCOPE and those two connections become jammed, then the word is inaccessible. Forgotten. But if you have ten neurons that have made connections to the word KALEIDOSCOPE, then those two gooey pathways can be detoured. The main roads that had always been the quickest routes are blocked, so it may take a longer time to retrieve the word, but you can still get there.

So the more connective neural roads you build to a piece of information, the more likely it is that you’ll still be able to get to that piece of information as some of your roads become impassable.

“Childhood toy” is blocked.
“Tube containing mirrors and pieces of colored glass or paper” is blocked.
Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Girl with the eyes:


Monday, May 24, 2010

Talking with James

A couple of years ago, I sat down and talked with my friend James about his life before Alzheimer’s.

James used to be the Director of IT for a Fortune 500 company. At any given time, he was responsible for twenty-five to thirty projects on a global basis, he received over a hundred emails daily that required responses, he attended six to ten meetings each day, and he worked anywhere from sixty-five to one-hundred hours each week. He likened his job to the corporate version of an air traffic controller. A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, he thrived in this kind of intense environment and was consistently ranked in the top ten percent of their 70,000-person workforce.

He rattled off descriptions of his work life with effortless enthusiasm. He told me that it was a really exciting time in his life, that his work was great and fabulous and that he loved it. I was undoubtedly convinced.

And then his Alzheimer’s symptoms began to surface. James’ first and most salient symptom was exactly what we all think of when we think of Alzheimer’s Disease –forgetting. But James was only 43 years old at the time. Forgetting doesn’t wave its arms and scream Alzheimer’s at the age of 43. Both James and his primary care doctor blamed his high-pressured job. He needed to slow down. Relax. His doctor thought he might be depressed. James didn’t think so. He had a lot of energy, and aside from forgetting things, he felt like himself. But he trusted his doctor and went on Wellbutrin.

The forgetting continued.

What kinds of things was James forgetting? He forgot to go to meetings, that there ever was a meeting, that it was he who’d actually called the meeting, people’s names, people he’d known for years, where he’d placed needed documents.

What did this forgetting feel like?

“I think of my mind as a desk, and all the papers on it are my memories, all the things I’m keeping track of. It’s as if someone sneaks up when I’m not looking and takes random pieces of paper off my desk. When I turn back around and look, it’s as if those pieces of paper never existed. I won’t even realize they’re gone until whatever they’re needed for comes up. Then I’ll have no idea where they are. They’re gone. That’s what was happening with my memories. I wouldn’t realize my memories were gone, and I would maybe even argue that they weren’t gone until they were needed, and then I wouldn’t have anything to draw on.

I also lost my ability to multitask. When you multitask, you keep information in place holders in your mind. You’re using your short-term memory. I think of it like an air traffic controller, keeping track of where all the planes are all the time. Even when you’re focusing on one particular plane, you have to keep the other planes in mind. Part of what made me successful as a director was my ability to work on twenty-five to thirty projects at once. I was losing sight of meetings, documents, conversations, the existence of entire projects.”

His planes were starting to collide, wander off the radar screen, and hit the ground.

“I also lost my sense of time. Two hours would feel like twenty minutes.”

This is also a symptom of forgetting. The way we perceive the passage of time requires the ability to string together memories of what happened between a time ‘then’ and another time ‘now.’ If memories are missing, stolen off the mental desk, this tends to shrink that time period.

With all this forgetting at a job that required a high level of remembering, James was beginning to fail at work. I wondered if maybe home life, where he didn’t have the same kinds of multitasking demands placed on him, was more forgiving.

What was happening at home?

“I would get home and be just exhausted. I’d hardly be able to speak because I was so tired. I think it was because my mind was working so hard to get through the day at work, that by the time I got home, my mind literally had nothing left. I would sit there and be blank for a while. It had to be frustrating for my wife, to see me spending all my energy and passion at work and having nothing left at home. That was really difficult on my family, wondering why Dad’s disengaged, why Dad doesn’t want to do anything. To them, it probably looked like depression. But it turns out it was something else.”

After an arduous journey through a series of medical tests that excluded every other possible known cause of forgetting, James was ultimately diagnosed with “the only rock left on the table.” Alzheimer’s Disease. James was forty-five years old.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's: A Love Story

John and Mary have been married for fifty-three years. Mary has Alzheimer’s Disease and lives in an Alzheimer’s Care Facility. John visits her every day. Every day, Mary does not know who he is.

Today is Valentine’s Day. He thinks about how much he loves his wife, about all she has meant to him, about all they’ve shared together over fifty-three years. When he visits her today, he brings her a rose and a box of her favorite chocolates.

As he offers his gifts to her, he says, “Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetie.”

She accepts the lovely rose and her favorite chocolates with polite pleasure.

He then says, “I love you, Mary.” And he tries to give her the gentlest kiss.

She swats at him and screams.

“Mary, I’m your husband. I’m John, your husband.”

Mary looks repulsed and scared and would get up out of her chair and run out of the room if she could.

“Get out!” she yells and covers her face with her hands.

“I love you, Mary. I’m your husband, John. Look at me, I love you.”

He tries to take one of her hands away from her face and hold it in his. She used to love holding his hand.

Mary squeezes her eyes shut and screams, “Help me! Somebody help me!”

After an aide comes in and settles Mary down, John leaves, heartbroken that he can’t spend meaningful time with his beloved wife on Valentine’s Day.

John can still have meaningful time with Mary. But he has to give up his old relationship with her in order to have a new one. The parts of Mary’s brain where John lived, the parts that housed Mary’s memories of the last fifty-three years, are either not working or are missing. Think about that. She has no memory of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, no memory of John, of being his wife, of being sixty, fifty, forty, or thirty years old. This information simply does not exist in her brain. Like it is for all of us, her truth, her reality, is based on the information she does have in her brain.

To Mary, she is only twenty-five years old. She knows no information beyond that. That is her truth. Imagine being twenty-five years old, and an eighty-year-old man you don’t recognize insists that he’s your husband, that he loves you and wants to kiss you. You’d fight him off, too!

John has to give up on being right and the truth according to his bigger brain and work with the truth as Mary lives it. He should not insist that he is her husband. To her, he is an old man, someone’s grandfather, and she is a young woman. He has to find a new relationship—

She has a beautiful smile. It reminds him of his granddaughter’s who lives far away. Would she mind if he visits with her for a while?

Where is she from? Well how about that! They’re from the same home town and can spend time reminiscing about life there.

He has a box of chocolates. Her favorite. Would she like one?

And go from there.