But Does He Really Have Alzheimer’s?

 It’s a confounding disease—Alzheimer’s. And no 2 people get this disease the same way.

Sometimes, his illness is very obvious, showing up as serious cognitive problems, but at other times, my partner can be amazingly “on,” as in witty, fun, engaging.

The disease, at times, makes me wonder about my own sense of reality.

Case in point: Meeting friends, at restaurants. Recently, we bumped into a group of former high school classmates at a local restaurant—a group who were waving from across the room, inviting us to come over to chat. We did that.

I told them what we’d been up to (not much—considering COVID) and asked them the same. We all laughed at our own longevity in life (we’re all in our 70’s and 80’s) or in marriage. (Each of the 3 couples has 50+ years of connubial bliss or a facsimile thereof.) That’s when Paul interjects to share some funny observation about how he keeps telling me what a prize he is so I won’t believe otherwise. All laugh. When someone in the group responds, he counters. It’s as if nothing is wrong.

But this whole episode belies reality.

For Paul has had Alzheimer’s (officially confirmed) for over 10 years. He’s been tested by neurologists and experts in the field of dementia; he cannot drive; on any given trip, he cannot recall where we’re going or how to get there; he cannot perform simple everyday tasks; he must be prompted to do all personal care (showers, brushing teeth, changing clothes). It’s not that he’s lazy; he just doesn’t recall how to do things– the steps involved in accomplishing them. He asks the same questions, repetitively.

What he can do is muster an on-the-spot funny delivery. One that often brings down the house for its raw honesty. One that probably causes those others to wonder: “This guy seems hysterical. But haven’t I read (probably from Colleen’s accounts on FB) that he’s got Alzheimer’s? Is it Colleen who’s cognitively-challenged?”

Yep, this disease can be confounding, indeed.

According to the aforesaid experts, Paul is in mid-range of this disease. Ten years in. Our neurologist knows one patient who’s had it 20 years. For others, its course can be lightening fast, and I’ve known some who’ve succumbed within a year.

On one of the earliest occasions, 10 years ago, in North Carolina, Paul drove into a busy intersection and he pulled out against the traffic light, almost causing the car from the other direction to crash into us. They swerved at the last minute. Paul’s action was so uncharacteristic for one who’d been an award-winning, long-distance trucker, traveling the nation’s roads in his big rig for 30 years.

Another time, we were just starting out on vacation to the Maine shore. The car was all packed with our bags, while our bikes lay in the back of the SUV, their handlebars poking up. About a mile up the road, I asked him to pull over so I could check if I’d brought a certain bag. When I got back in the car, he proceeded to turn around. When I asked “Where are you going?” he said: “Home.” He had forgotten we were just starting out on our vacation.

Today, Paul never drives.

But he can sure as Hell come up with a funny one-liner, at times.

At times like these, I’m sure others wonder which one of us has Alzheimer’s.

****Photo is of award-winning, cross-country trucker Paul Wesley Gates, in the days when he had to recall routes all across America.

Colleen Kelly Mellor (colleenkellymellor.com) writes to apprise others of the Alzheimer’s/dementia journey from a caretaker’s perspective. At present, an estimated 6.2 million have Alzheimer’s in the United States. That number will rise exponentially in future years. In Rhode Island, alone, there are 39,000 caretakers, performing 50,000,000 hrs of unpaid care-taking. 


E-mail me at colleenkellymellor@gmail.com.

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