It was about fifteen years ago in 1995 when I first discovered that my wife was having serious issues with memory. We had gone to visit friends in North Carolina when I realized that Betty had forgotten to pack a lot of the items we needed – toothpaste, towels, lens solution, formal wear for the party we would be attending. I thought nothing of it then- she probably left the bag at home containing all those items. A few weeks later when we had returned back home I caught her asking me the same question twice- Did we pay the electric bill? I answered her twice with some hesitation.
Two months later in June, her friends and family threw her a surprise 58th birthday party at our home. She looked genuinely surprised when I led her into the house full of eagerly awaiting guests. She had smiled up at me and had proceeded to greet everyone coming up to her. The party was in full swing when I had passed by the kitchen for more beers when I caught her asking my mother whose cake was sitting on her dining room table. My mother thinking it was a joke laughed. Not three minutes later she came up to me and asked the same question. That scared me to the bone because she was dead serious. Later that night as were turning in for bed she commented that she had not realized her birthday had arrived- it had just slipped her mind. I was still reeling from the incident earlier and began to get more scared. Was she just so busy at work and with the combination of aging that led her to forget that her birthday was today? These questions unsettled me and that night was when I first started having serious thoughts about taking her to a doctor.
Betty worked as a secretary answering calls and scheduling clients for a local spa salon. She had worked there for some 20 years while I worked in the construction business. I knew her to be a very organized individual who was always on top of things. She was often the one who would remember to call the aunts and uncles and cousins when their anniversaries or birthdays had arrived. She had grown up as the younger of two children in Edison, New Jersey. I had known her since I was in junior high and we began dating in high school, often hanging out with friends at the local burger place in near our school. She had finished high school when we had decided to get married and start our life together. I didn’t know that my world let alone my wife’s would soon be turned upside down. Betty was known to keep this little planner with her that contained all the important dates and events. Had she just forgotten to pencil in her birthday in her calendar? Does one even need to do that for their own birthday? I tired to dismiss these thoughts but sleep was not easy to come by that night.
We decided to go to the doctor’s for our routine visit the following month. Once I was there I had told the doctor outside the room that Betty seemed to be having difficulty remembering things. He said he wold look into it. By the end of the visit 20 minutes later, it was decided that Betty was probably dealing with depression. This came as a shocking diagnosis to the both of us. Nevertheless, I convinced her to begin the medication recommended to her by the doctor. For months she was on an anti-depressant and she did not notice a change. I however, noticed drastic changes- but not for the better. Betty had received a call from work one evening. Unbeknownst to me, Betty had failed to schedule in clients into the work calendar for a few months to the point where clients would show up for their appointment they made over the phone only to be told that there was no record of it. Betty must have spoken to the women over the phone and confirmed open times but failed to enter them into the system. It happened enough times to warrant her losing her job. She seemed confused and denied anything of the sort. However much I wanted to believe her I began having doubts about her abilities or lack thereof. I reexperienced the same sinking feeling I felt the year before at the surprise birthday party. Is she losing it? I decided to call our son that night and ask him to visit us sometime and that I had something I wanted to discuss with him. He and his family came to visit two months later.
I relayed everything going on with his mother to him and he sat there and listened to it all. He did not feel that his mother was depressed. He thought it was old age but encouraged me to take her to another doctor, maybe a neurologist. He did notice a change in her over the past year and had also caught her asking him the same question multiple times during his visit, couple of times even forgetting her one year old grandson’s name. I was convinced and took her to see a neurologist. It was at this visit with him, that I finally received some answers that made sense. After some tests, he had given Betty a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. I was both in denial and relieved at the same time. What he described to me made sense and I could see it in the day-to-day activities that Betty went through. But I could not fathom why it had to be her and why now at this time. She was promptly started on medication. With her diagnosis came my transformation from a companion to a full time caregiver where it became my turn to take care of her. The physical and emotional toll of being a full-time caregiver was overwhelming. I was inundated with the daily chores of cooking, cleaning, shopping for the groceries, paying the bills, and doing the laundry- all the things that Betty once was in charge of and did with such apparent ease. Over time I realized the importance and vital role in my sanity of reaching out and asking others for help. Friends and family became lifelines when I needed to take a break from caregiving. They would watch her and keep her company while I would take a night off to spend time with friends and unwind. The doctor as well has been a tremendous support and monitors her regularly.
The most important lesson John has realized is that taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer’s does not need to be a solitary and lonesome journey. Although Betty continues to smile, it is not the same smile they used to share when they were younger. Although she engages in conversation with him, it is not the same as before. While he may have lost some of Betty he once knew, he has discovered some new qualities in his wife throughout this journey that still motivate him to care for her just the same. And for him it is indeed a journey into the unknown with his wife by his side and support of family and friends.
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