Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

I find it a little ironic that June is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, yet we know so little about that disease. Six million Americans have the disease today and, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, by the year 2050, 50 percent of all Americans over 65 will be afflicted, due to our extended life expectancy.

Alzheimer’s outpaces the bubonic plague in term of its deadly reach, yet it is never discussed until its haunting presence has struck down a loved one. In this sense, it is not only an unmentioned epidemic, but a mysterious silent killer.

Up until now we have placed our hopes in finding a cure. We march for a cure and spend millions of dollars on research. The logo of the Alzheimer’s Association even contains the image of a laboratory beaker, emphasizing their scientific ambitions.

As a society, however, we are left with two tragedies. First, there is no cure on the horizon, and little to no evidence that we are close to producing a drug to slow the disease process. Consumer Reports tells us that current medications for a cure have about the same effect as a placebo.

Our second and more profound tragedy: in our obsession for a cure, we have overlooked creating a meaningful and compassionate model of “care.” It is inexplicable to me, since we are talking about our future selves, that we seem to have resigned ourselves to the institutional warehousing of our loved ones in custodial nursing homes, assisted living communities, even our own darkened bedrooms.

As a memory care provider, I have realized that once the adult child is unrecognized by their parent they conclude that their parent is gone, and more often than not, they become gone, too. It seems that once we are able to rationalize their loss of humanity, we are comfortable with the idea that our loved ones have become part of the Alzheimer’s living dead and the husk of themselves will be left on its own.

As a society we must appreciate that those afflicted with Alzheimer’s continue to live in time and space, and never lose their intuition about those around them. We know this from those living in the twilight of the disease. They know who is loving or impatient, kind or dismissive. And though the disease destroys short-term memories, those afflicted continue to maintain long-term memories and can be comforted by others who reach out to the meaningful touch stones in their past. Love and joy can be shared for both the parent and child, to the great benefit of each. A premature truncation of this vital relationship can be devastating and is unnecessary.

Americans might use as a North Star for such an aspiration the idea of assisting our loved ones to maintain a connection to themselves as long as possible. This can be done through patience, and by reaching out and touching their long-term memories: personal, cultural, and spiritual. In this way, hope can be found in the past.

Stephen Sarsfield Bowman

President, Peregrine Senior Living

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