An Alzheimer’s Countdown

Ellen Javernick
By Ellen JavernickDecember 11, 2015

Author Ellen Javernick shares with a look into an Alzheimer’s countdown, and how the disease has personally impacted her and her father’s life.

The Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

We laughed at dad’s response when the doctor asked, “John, can you tell me the name of the president?”

“Of course I can’t,” said my father. “Don’t you know I have Alzheimer’s?”

We all knew it, and that’s why we were in the office.

My brilliant father’s mental processes had declined so significantly that we were making arrangements for him to be admitted into a long term care facility. Our visit was to determine whether he met the criteria for “acceptance.”

As difficult as it had been to watch Dad decline, I’d been sustained by my background in early childhood education. The changes I’d seen in him were just the reverse of those I saw in the young children I worked with. That gave me ideas for ways we could support Dad as he regressed.

An Alzheimer’s Countdown

Eight’s known as the age of reason and children are pretty independent. When Dad first became aware of his own memory problems, he was able to continue with most of the activities he’d enjoyed earlier. He did, however, retire from his job as a pathologist.

Shortly after that, he began to act more like a seven year old. Because of my experience with seven year olds, I could help my Mom ensure Dad’s success and reduce some of his frustration. His beloved bridge became too complex, but he enjoyed bingo, simple puzzles and helping with the cooking. Seven year olds are pretty self-sufficient in their personal care and Dad was too, especially when Mom reduced the number of choices he had to make.

Six year olds are just starting to read. It’s at this stage that people with Alzheimer’s begin to lose that ability. Dad’s medical journals were no longer suitable, but the library had a whole section of easy-to-read adult books. Dad loved helping, and Mom kept him busy with familiar routine jobs. Six year olds don’t drive, and of course we couldn’t let Dad drive either.

Five year olds like to feel independent, unfortunately it was at this stage that mom had to restrict activities he’d been able to do previously. No amount of explaining helped Dad understand why he couldn’t go fishing alone. We tried to focus on activities he could do. Though biking alone was out, tandem biking was fun. How proud he was of the garden they planted, and although Mom was ultimately responsible for their dog, she made him feel that Woofy was his job.

Four year olds need lots of supervision but they need companionship too. That’s why, at this point, Mom found adult day care worked well for Dad. Like his four year old counterparts, he had little sense of time, and drove us crazy with repeated questions like, “when’s dinner?” We learned that it was easier to just answer the question than to try to give an explanation. We learned too, to accept comments and actions that weren’t appropriate. When Dad told the neighbor her house smelled, Mom just had to grin and bear it.

Three year olds can still dress themselves. They can undress themselves too. People with Alzheimer’s often lack inhibitions. Mom picked clothes for Dad that helped avoid problems. Dad’s hobby had been wood working. Though letting him use power tools was no longer safe, he loved gluing the wood scraps she kept for him. Children who are three sometimes throw temper tantrums. At this stage Dad did too. We had to remind ourselves that we’d kick and scream too if we’d lost the ability to do simple tasks that we’d done just weeks earlier.

Two year olds have the reputation for being “terrible.” They’re really not, but they are exhausting. So too are their adult counterparts. They respond well to phrases like “Let’s take off our coats, Dad and we’ll put them in the closet.” Toddlers are happy with generic words like “drink.” The inability to recall the exact words is, for adults at this stage, most frustrating. Once Dad completely melted down when he wanted a Triscut but he could only say cookie. Finger food is the watchword for folks young or old in this stage, and music makes everyone happy. Dad especially liked his old favorites. He loved compliments on the clothes Mom picked for him to choose from. He was entertained by the same computer programs that entertain young children.

When your loved one is in the final stages of an Alzheimer’s countdown it seems like you’ve a baby in the family again. Even though Dad had been “accepted” into a long term care facility at this point, Mom was still his chief caregiver. After he could no longer talk, he’d clap each day when he saw her coming. At the end, he could sense her comforting presence just as an infant senses that a loved one is near.

How have you supported a loved one with Alzheimer’s through the disease? Do you have suggestions for other Alzheimer’s caregivers? Share your suggestions with us in the comments below.

About the Author

In addition to being a kindergarten teacher in Loveland, Colorado, Ellen Javernick is a children’s book author. Her two most popular books are “The Birthday Pet” and “What If Everybody Did That?” Her articles and stories have appeared in numerous publications for adults as well as for children.

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