Last week I read an article in Sports Illustrated about their Sportswoman of the Year,Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt, who is coping with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Pat (even her players call her Pat and not coach) is more than deserving of the award for her basketball accomplishments – right up there with some of the best men’s program records, I might add – but, my interest was in her choice to go public with her condition. Watching someone you love and admire spiral into an abyss of darkness is painful enough in the privacy of your own family. But, to do it publicly? Her courage is commendable and her willingness to stand at the forefront of such exposure had me silently applauding.
Over 5 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s and to have a person so successful, so visible, so determined brings hope for a better understanding to the many of us the disease has touched. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s. He passed away 15 years ago; or I should say, physically passed away. Mentally he had been gone from us for about three years before his death.
Growing up, I wasn’t particularly close to my Grandpa. I thought the sun rose and set on my Grandma and “Pepa” was just an extra treat in the package. Happily, though, during the last ten years of his life our relationship became closer. As his Alzheimer’s progressed, it became apparent that Pepa would need more care than he was getting at home. Sadly, he could no longer tell people were taking advantage of him financially, morally, and in some ways, physically. It seemed the best decision was to put him in a facility specialized for Alzheimer patients.
He didn’t want to go, but he liked the idea of being a burden on us even less. He was at the center for two years and the staff took good care of him, but when he had his “on” days he would tell me he hated being there. He felt so alone; confused without his newspapers, his vegetable garden where he loved to putter and his favorite chair.
I will never forget him looking at me with such brilliant clarity and saying, “Honey, I just don’t know what’s happening to me.”
It was enough to ensure my tears would flow as soon as I stepped from his room.
I visited my Pepa as often as I could. As time passed, the “on” days disappeared and he recognized me less and less. Sometimes he knew my name but he would think I was his daughter, not his granddaughter. Other times he would only converse in his native language – Spanish. He seemed most content then, talking about riding his horses and being with his brothers on their ranch in Mexico.
I can’t say I ever left a visit happy. It saddened me that this wonderful, big bear of a man who told such great stories about coming to California, learning English, and building houses couldn’t reminisce with me or even tell me what he had for breakfast. He no longer remembered driving his forest green Ford pickup to Orchard Supply Hardware with seven of us grandkids hanging out the back, whooping and hollering like we were in the midst of a drag race. He didn’t remember us kids shooing like flies as he yelled for us to get out of the basement or the ever-expanding woodpile or any of the other places we weren’t supposed to play. And he couldn’t laugh with me about how we used to wait for him to fall asleep in his Barcalounger so we could hunt underneath for the change that would eventually fall out of his pocket.
I’m saddened by the thought that my oldest son does not remember Pepa, nor did my youngest son even get the chance to know him, though he carries his great-grandfather’s name. To have such a vibrant, hardworking, loving person sitting right in front of you and yet be a shell of the person they once were is truly a cruel trick of nature. Alzheimer’s is hard on every family it touches. And it doesn’t matter if you’re one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time or the granddaughter of a simple carpenter.
Here’s wishing this New Year sheds brighter light on the difficulties of Alzheimer’s. Thank you, Pat, for flipping the switch.
Question: How has Alzheimer’s affected your family or the people close to you?