Recently I saw the film The Iron Lady in which (a brilliant) Meryl Streep portrays the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The movie provided us with three magnificent portrayals of life. A simply outstanding performance by Ms. Streep, who won a Golden Globe for her performance, a portrait of vignettes that depict Ms. Thatcher’s rise to the position as Britain’s Prime Minister, a position she held from 1979 to 1990, longer than any other British PM, and last, but not least, it exposed the reality that even the Iron Lady has no immunity against such a deadly disease, from which there is no escape, and for which no cure currently exists.
Ms. Streep’s performance also brought back vivid memories, and based on this rapidly escalating disease and the immense suffering it deliveries to families, I felt compelled to share with you as this disease attacks helpless victims everywhere.
The movie focuses a great deal on the current stage of the Prime Minister’s life, or should I say declining health, which day-by-day is driving the former Prime Minister into her own “Personal Prison,” a state of mind that will contain her until her death.
Call it what you like, whatever makes “you” feel better, old age, dementia or Alzheimer disease … but whatever you call it, in my opinion, (AD to most people) it is a most destructive disease. The thought of a loved one being afflicted by AD is frightening, yet it is a rapidly advancing disease. One that along with the victim it invades, will also unleash its cruelty upon the entire family, relatives and those around them, all of whom, gradually get pulled into the fray.
In 1901, Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist, identified the first case of what is now called Alzheimer’s disease in a fifty-year-old woman. Today about 30 million people around the world suffer from AD, of which almost 35% of those inflicted are in the U.S. Today almost 5.5 million Americans are affected by AD with an estimated annual cost to Americans of $183 Billion. Estimates put the growth of this killer disease at 1 in 85 by the year 2050. Simply put, that’s about one person on every street, in every community around the world. My personal belief is that it will impact more people, at a far faster rate. Nothing to support this belief other than a strong gut feel, predicated on a rapidly advancing aging population, (especially in the U.S.) coupled with the fact that most diseases for which there is no cure, seem to advance at a far faster rate than those that do.
People like President Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and most recently a former local Phoenix resident, Glen Campbell came out and announced he also had Alzheimer disease. In fact he is in the process of conducting a final one-year tour across the country, appropriately tilted “The Goodbye Tour.” After seeing him recently on a TV interview, I am not sure that he will be able to complete the entire tour, but I certainly hope he can because he will be helping every person who sees his show better understand this terrible disease. On a side note, his back-up band consists of his two sons and daughter, and I am happy to say that he is selling out his performances.
Not being one for fancy words, allow me this opportunity from a layman’s perspective, to provide a raw-glimpse, a more real-world understanding of what happens when AD comes knocking at your front door. The sheer magnitude of the torment and suffering families with AD victims will encounter cannot be imagined by the rest of us.
I call Alzheimer’s the silent killer, the grim reaper. It’s also called the Long Goodbye, because it takes so many years for many of its victims to pass away. AD doesn’t discriminate between borders, genders or races, rich or poor, and seldom provides any advance warning to its intended victims. It simply creeps up on the unsuspecting — a person’s brain.
It cleverly disguises itself as something that it’s not. AD to those (in their 50s, 60s or 70s) dresses up as the early signs of old age. Even more unfortunate is it invades the body years before it’s ever suspected, meaning that once a person is actually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, that individual is already many years behind the proverbial 8-Ball.
AD is similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease and multiple sclerosis, two crippling diseases that unlike AD, attack the muscles, but nevertheless, the long-term results for each individual remains the same. In laymen’s terms, Alzheimer’s attacks the brain and over time shuts down all of the body’s motor skills, memory and senses. It eventually renders the body useless until it essentially shuts down altogether.
For the most fortunate, AD will last between 5 to 7 years. For the not so fortunate, it can drag on well past 15 years. Either way, the collateral damage on the individual, their family and friends is both cruel and devastating. The healing process for these people (now turned caregivers) left to deal with the carnage can take years, and most always leaves deep scars that can last a lifetime
The early stage of Alzheimer’s damages the ability to recall recent events. As the disease advances, an array of new symptoms start to appear: from knowing where you are, to mood swings to confusion, not relating to life-long surroundings, (ones backyard, living-room or house) irritability to outright anger and hostility. Then the person’s long-term memory starts to fail (followed quickly by losing the ability to read or write). The names of loved ones, family members, relatives’ business associates and neighbors start to fade away forever. This is roughly the time line when each victim crosses over to the darker side.
I can remember hearing my mother telling me that my dad is just a little anxious. Or today he seems to be a little tired or “didn’t sleep well last night.” Lilley true, but along with that was the unknown fact that our father had already fallen victim; his mind had already been invaded by a disease that would over time destroy him. In his case, it resulted in seven gut-wrenching years to reduce this fine human being, loving father and husband to complete incapacitation.
In 1975, at the ripe old age of just 69, having recently retired, like so many others, my father was looking forward with great excitement to his “Golden Years,” relaxing, spending time at the lake cottage with his family and traveling with his wife of more than 50 years. Little did he know that his mind had already been kidnapped … and sadly, when this loving and caring human being could no longer handle the day-to-day madness, he left us in the winter of 1982. As sad, and feeling as alone (and helpless) as I did, I do remember garnering enough courage to “Thank God” many times over for finally letting my father out of his prison and for taking him to a far better place.
Even though for many years after his death, I wrestled with how this God of ours could be so cruel, I have since come to realize that as a believer, we are not always provided with the luxury of such answers. Sometimes we must simply believe that everything happens for a reason. Even today, I often find myself wondering what that reason could have been.
It is 30 years later and not a single day goes by that I do not think about my dad or my mother. They were both great people who are worth remembering. However, as disturbing as that day was in 1982, what’s even more disturbing is that there still remains no cure for Alzheimer’s after 30 years.
Currently there is no medical evidence to support that any present medicines are effective in preventing Alzheimer’s. Other studies that contribute to a healthy brain involve a low fat diet (fruits and vegetables) with a mix of proteins high in omega-3 like tuna, salmon and halibut. A steady routine of exercising is also recommended.
Studies have shown that recommendations exist that can delay its effect. For example, those who engage their minds by reading, learning languages, playing puzzles or otherwise exercise the mind are helped. Combining that activity with certain diets may make us less susceptible to Alzheimer’s.
But following these recommendations, individually or combined is no guarantee that those steps can prevent an individual from contracting the disease. Certain studies have also shown that medical marijuana can be effective in inhibiting the progress of AD. It seems that the active ingredients in the drug (THC) may prevent the formation of deposits in the brain that are associated with AD. These same studies also show that THC is more effective than commercially available drugs. Regardless of what any “one person” may think, whatever the drug, the tea leaves or prescribed medication, whatever can be given to anyone suffering from AD that will aid them to die a more dignified death, should be afforded them and their families without exception.
We are definitely a population of labels, brands and certain opinions. But when it comes down to a crisis at home, it’s all about family and what’s best for all. At least that is my humble opinion. When a disease like AD comes knocking at your front door, you must be prepared for those very decisions. And when called upon to do so, one needs a clear and open mind that remains neutral from the family emotions that guaranteed to be there. Unfortunately, far too many of us are riddled with guilt and emotions, and making those decisions is a most difficult and daunting task even for the strongest of souls.
In my mother’s case, the first tough decision came about one year after my dad had been diagnosed with AD, when she herself was suffering from chest pains and was diagnosed with Angina; hardening of the arteries, which 30 years ago was a very serious disease. The diagnosis called for by-pass heart surgery. When she asked her doctor what the surgical percentages were for a full recovery, he responded by saying about 40 percent … in her favor. Her next question was; “How long could she survive without the surgery?” The response was; “with medication, a daily doze of glycerin tablets, increasing discomfort and a less stressful life (her husband was suffering from AD) about 5 years. Fifty years of marriage does many things, but to best friends and soul-mates, it left my mom with only one answer. Believing she would outlast my father, her decision was easy. No surgery, I will care for my husband. However, she did not outlive my father, passing away just one week short five years.
We are all creatures of habit, so when we read in the paper about an unfortunate tragedy; father killed in a car accident, do we spend 5 seconds before turning the page? But how would we deal with the same story if it was a little closer to home … and it was your own father?
Jamie Copland is CEO of Phoenix-based Sentry Enterprises, Inc., and publisher of local Phoenix publications TRAVELHOST magazine of greater Phoenix and MyLIFE magazine. He is also the author of “Life’s Observations By An Everyday Nobody,” published in 2010 by Eloquent Books of the Strategic Book Group.