Opinion

Robert Ehlert: A day devoted to fight against Alzheimer’s

Three days in a row I took her for a ride in my newly acquired 1999 Ford Ranger pickup.

She liked to sit in the back of the cab in the "jump seats" because she was a tiny thing and she'd never gotten to "ride back there."

Each day she asked the same questions she had asked the day before:

"Wow, when did you get this truck? I like it . . .a stick shift! How fun.

"What do you haul in it?

"What color green would you say this is?"

By the third day, I knew the questions, not to mention the answers, by heart. I could even anticipate them. But I answered with the same enthusiasm each day — as if I’d never heard them before and she had never asked them.

Because, that was the new reality for “Grammy,” which is how my kids referred to my sweet and spunky mother-in-law who made them special lunches and who they respected for walking the log across the creek in Colorado.

Though it was a while before the diagnosis came, Alzheimer’s disease was making its move. Grammy was losing her grip on the division of days. She was slowly sinking into the abyss of dementia, a degree at a time, a new symptom every so often that confirmed our greatest fears.

Gradually, as Alzheimer’s stole her short-term memory we learned to focus on and enjoy the moments, even those accented by puzzled smiles indicating wheels turning but no traction. She lived for five more years before succumbing to complications of Alzheimer’s, which, surprisingly is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

For much of the rest of her life, her children and caregivers met each new day on the calendar with smiles and hugs and attention — though we all knew her calendar never turned a page.

Such are the emotions that will replay for the families of the 16 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s on Sunday, which is called the “The Longest Day” by the Alzheimer’s Association.

Yes, it is Father’s Day and the summer solstice, but it is also a day that lends a metaphor for those suffering and coping and even smiling with loved ones who find a way to get through the longest days of Alzheimer’s. Worldwide, 47 million live with dementia and that number could rise to 76 million by 2030.

Throughout the world and right here in the Treasure Valley there will be events to commemorate the day, to raise awareness and funds to work toward finding a cure.

Midway through Grammy’s fight with Alzheimer’s I happened upon the work of a young songwriter, Liz Longley of Chester County, Penn. The lyrics are poignant and haunting memories about her grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Listen to “Unraveling” from the “Hot Loose Wire” album at your own peril:

“I'm the only daughter of her oldest son; I knew her well before her spirit was gone; And her life is a thread woven into every part of me; She is unraveling, she is unraveling

She looks in my eyes and asks me my name; Every five minutes I tell her the same . . .”

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