Friday, October 13, 2006

A Fate Worse Than Death?

I just found out that a close friend of mine's mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. They are Scottish, though my friend lives stateside with her American husband and their son. Her parents live over across the pond. All of them are such lovely people, funny and witty, with an occasional biting sense of humor, jovial and smart and kind. I have visited her parents several times, and see them nearly every time they come for a visit to Austin. My friend is very close to her mother, so you can imagine how completely stunned and fearful she is. It is devastating to know that what lies ahead of them will be so terribly difficult.
I have never had any direct involvement with Alzheimer's Disease in my life, but I can tell you, if there is one thing I fear most for myself, it would be such a diagnosis. Not only would I be terrified for myself, the thought of completely losing my memories and connection to the people and places and events of my life. But even moreso, the effect this would have on those around me who love me and interact with me. Especially my husband and child. The thought that one day I could look into their eyes without a glimmer of recognition would be heart-breaking to them. And, to eventually not even know who I am, or remember anything from moment to moment... horrifying. For those who have a loved one with Alzheimer's Disease, I can only imagine how it would feel to eventually need to hospitalize this person you adore, out of sheer exhaustion in caring for them, knowing they are alive but not with you, not really. Sitting in an institution, unaware of their own fate, yet still living and breathing. Those people who are able to mentally and psychologically take on the challenge of caring for a late-stage Alzheimer's victim are living angels with wings. I do not know if I personally could withstand the horror of it. And I feel if there were anything in my life which could ever make me think of committing suicide, a diagnosis such as this might be it. Not that I think anyone else OUGHT to do that, but I don't know that I could stand the thought of what I would be doing to my family.
According to statistics cited at the Alzheimer's Foundation website, patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's can live anywhere from 2 to 20 years with the diagnosis. It is the 7th leading cause of death in people older than 65. Given the age at which people are generally diagnosed with the disease, the statistics of mortality are likely consistent with a person that age's chances without the disease. The actual cause of death in Alzheimer's patients is, however, not the disease, but pneumonia. In a state of extreme dementia, patients can become ill and not ever get up from their beds, which causes pneumonia to set in and take over. Although there is no cure, there are about 5-6 medications which can slow and even in some cases reverse the damage which is done by Alzheimer's Disease. I pray to God that my friend's mother has a mild case, not very advanced, and that one of these drugs will be able to help her. I know very little at this point, we haven't discussed any of these details yet. My friend is understandably just in shock, and doesn't feel like talking about it yet. I know a day will come when she has grown accustomed to the knot in her belly and is able to maintain her composure to at least enough of a degree to discuss it. Right now, she's just hanging on by fingernails, trying to keep from going mental in front of her son, who would be freaked out by it.
Sigh. Heavy heart.

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