Through the eyes of Alzheimer's

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By The Staff

It’s on the news. It’s the topic of conversations. It’s even the subject of movies. What do you think of when you hear Alzheimer’s? Do you think senile? Do you think “old people’s disease”? Maybe you think of someone you know, a parent, neighbor or friend. Maybe you even wonder about yourself.

The Alzheimer’s Association says Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that occurs gradually, resulting in memory loss, changes in behavior, thinking, reasoning, and a decline in overall functioning and ability.

As the disease progresses, plaques build up in the spaces between nerve cells in the brain, and tangles of twisted fibrous protein build up inside the cells. Experts tell us these plaques and tangles block the communication among nerve cells, and as these nerve cells die, memory fails.

A face to the disease

Los Alamos residents Jim and Deb Dalton are living with Alzheimer’s. Jim, 54, has early onset Alzheimer’s. Deb is his care partner.

Until almost two years ago Jim worked at the lab in the facilities department. He is a husky man, strong, able-bodied and quite healthy-looking with a warm, wonderful sense of humor. He enjoys photography now, saying it helps him to remember.

Jim would like to ride his motorcycle, or go for a drive, but he can no longer operate a vehicle consistently enough to ensure his and others safety.

On a good day for Jim, he remembers his wife’s name, and finds his way home after a walk. It is a harder day when he has appointments or when they need to go to the grocery store. Jim’s happier if he can push the grocery cart and follow Deb – and he doesn’t have to remember which way to go. Running into someone he realizes he should know, he might remember only that he worked alongside that person for many years, but not that person’s name.

As his wife, best friend and now care partner, every day is a new challenge for Deb. Sometimes it is the little things – like making sure the doors are locked, or not going for a walk after dark because Jim doesn’t feel safe. Other times it is bigger: Family gatherings must be kept small so they do not overwhelm Jim and cause anxiety.

The responsibilities of daily living, paying bills, home and car upkeep and repairs, doctor appointments, making a living, and caring for Jim all are on Deb’s shoulders now.

“I pray every day when I leave for work that the man who once took care of our home and provided for us stays safe.” she said. “The time is coming when I will have to have someone stay with Jim during the day.”

She said he often forgets to take his medication, or is not sure if he has taken it. He can’t remember if he’s eaten recently or even how to make a sandwich.

“How hard it is to watch the man who once took care of his children with such ease stare at the bread, peanut butter and jelly and not remember how to make his favorite sandwich,” Deb said. “People don’t understand that this wonderful man who looks so healthy and is such a nice person has a brain that is dying from Alzheimer’s. It is changing who he is. I want to scream. I want to cry. I want to hold on to Jim.”

She said she’s saddened even more to know that his grandchildren will never know the person their grandpa was.

“I want people to know what Alzheimer’s is,” she said. “That it is not an old person’s disease. That it is devastating to have your husband become a person that you must tell the same thing to four or five times in the span of 10 minutes. It makes you become someone you don’t want to be when you become short or impatient. Then you feel guilty and selfish.”

Additionally, with Alzheimer’s, there are no survivors. The disease progressively worsens until the patient dies.

The Dalton family has pulled together to help. Deb’s sister and her family have moved to Los Alamos from out of state to help not only with Jim, but to give Deb the support she needs.

The entire family also participated in the 2007 Memory Walk in Jim’s honor. They are involved in an early-onset support group in Albuquerque as well as the Los Alamos support group. They are supportive of others in the community who are also dealing with Alzheimer’s.

Jim and Deb are one couple; there are many in our Los Alamos community.

Statistics say there are 38,000 cases of Alzheimer’s disease in New Mexico with eight new cases diagnosed every day. And according to Dr. John Adair, Los Alamos County has the fastest growth rate in the state.

The New Mexico 2000 state census says there are 326 individuals in Los Alamos County with Alzheimer’s and statistically that number would increase in 2008 to 481.

The Los Alamos Memory Walk for 2008 is Oct. 4. It is not too early for teams to form for the walk. For more information, contact Jerry at 662-8920 or Andy at 800-272-3900.

The Los Alamos Alzheimer’s support group meets the third Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. at Crossroads Bible Church. For more information, contact Vickie Griffis at 662-8867.

Vickie Griffis facilitates the Los Alamos Alzheimer’s support group.