The gift of memory is a powerful gift which – when with us – allows us to relive moments over and over again. Yet, such a fragile gift’s significance is only partially understood by the bystanders watching a loved one slowly drift into darkness, into a living blank slate.
The days of our lives seem to get shorter with age, more noticeably as we sit back to remember the moments that have passed in nostalgic awe. The gift of memory is a powerful gift which – when with us – allows us to relive moments over and over again. Yet, such a fragile gift’s significance is only partially understood by the bystanders watching a loved one slowly drift into darkness, into a living blank slate. A painful sight it truly is: to see a once-vibrant human being with a legacy unable to recall the most significant of events, unable to perform the simplest tasks, muted to complete silence as the grip of dementia takes almost complete hold.
Alzheimer’s, a curse that has been around for many years, has been referred to by many names throughout history. It is a curse that hits very close to home for many – including myself – as it is a disease that causes confusion not only in its sufferers and the families of its sufferers, but also for those in the scientific and medical fields. It is not uncommon to find people from every walk of life, from every race and from every religion affected by this terrible ailment. It is this very ailment that took the lives of my grandmother, her sisters, her mother, and those of countless others around the world.
What is it?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of progressive dementia, characterized by a gradual nonstop escalation in forgetfulness. It usually strikes after the age of 65 years and many times randomly selects its targets in a population. For the unlucky ones, it runs in families, often starting before the magic number of 65 – and in some rare cases, as early as 40 years of age. Families are left in shock and feel helpless as they watch their loved ones struggle at first with forgetting appointments and simple things, to forgetting how to cook, and ultimately to forgetting how to eat and even use the bathroom. The span of the disease can be anywhere from a shocking 5 years to an agonizing 15- or 20-year course, always ending in a very sad demise for the suffering patient.
Alzheimer’s comes in two forms: early onset and late onset. Early onset is the form that usually runs in families in a dominant inheritance pattern, and it strikes before the age of 65. Late onset has some genetic components – but not as many as the early onset form – and it usually strikes after the age of 65. Once the symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear, the severity only escalates. With no cure, truly the only treatment is the comfort provided by a loving family or by retiring to a nursing home (which are flooded with people suffering from this ailment). It is currently one of the most expensive medical conditions because its course runs for so long a time; as well, a phenomenally growing number of aging people, researchers and physicians are scrambling to find a viable treatment or cure.
A Personal Story
I have stated before that this problem hits close to home since I had a grandmother who suffered from and ultimately succumbed to the powerful disease. My grandmother was in her 70s when she began showing signs of dementia, and at first it wasn’t anything serious – she was just a little more forgetful. It soon progressed to where she would go into short periods of confusion, especially when she was in an unfamiliar place, and that confusion would last for either a few hours or approximately a day, after which she would bounce back. This pattern continued for some time. To make a long story short, her Alzheimer’s worsened for about 10 years, but her final two years were especially hard on all of us, since by that time she had forgotten a lot of her vocabulary and most of our names.
My grandmother’s last two years were spent in Lebanon, and in 2008 when I went to visit my grandparents, she ran and hugged me as soon as I walked in the door. Although she was unable to speak and she may not have known how I’m related to her, she still showed a lot of warmth and love, and knew that I was indeed someone important in her life. It broke my heart to see how my grandmother – whom I always had looked up to and always saw as a strong person – had been brought down by this dementia and made to become as dependent on others as a toddler is dependent on his/her parents. That summer would be my final visit with my grandmother, as she passed away in December of 2009, after 10 years with Alzheimer’s.
Brothers and Sisters, please note that this is a pressing issue in our community and indeed in all communities. There is a need for people to take interest in programs for the elderly, as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are extremely common. We need daycares where they can interact with others for a few hours everyday, and there is an even greater need for proper care facilities for when they become incapacitated to live on their own. God forbid, one day it may be a family member close to you, and you may want to turn to someone for help and find that such help does not exist. God willing, we can and must work together to establish centers with professionals able to assist and provide care for the elders suffering from this and any other debilitating illnesses.
I would like to dedicate this to my grandmother, the mother of my mother, Nahieh Karaki Hachem (1926-2009). Please recite a Sura Fatiha for her and for all deceased believing men and women.