He was charming, witty and stubborn. He knew everything yet knew nothing. He pushed me, tested my patience and helped shape me into the woman I am today. Even though I saw him as a strong and nearly invincible man, in the end, Alzheimer’s disease took him and on Monday September 5th 2016, he left our world.
He had Alzheimer’s for many years. His deterioration was gradual but noticeable. It started with forgetting little things, like we all do, to forgetting bigger things such as major life events and who close relatives were. He always knew he’d forgotten something and would often remark, “I have a good memory. A short one but a good one.”
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and is one of New Zealand’s most significant growing healthcare challenges. The number of Kiwis with dementia is expected to triple by 2050, according to Alzheimer’s NewZealand. Alzheimer’s affects more than just memory. It also affects behaviour, speech, the ability to relate to others and increased difficulty performing regular tasks, to name a few.
My Grandma had done her best to care for him at home. In early 2016, Granddad’s Alzheimer’s grew too much to care for and the call was made to put him into full time care. It was in this time I grew a larger level of respect and admiration for the strength of my Grandma. I can only hope that I am as amazing and strong as her one day.
In all the preparation and research I had done at the time to try to understand what Granddad was going through, there was no amount of preparation that can truly prepare you for the difficult times. The times when the person you thought you knew well is acting suddenly strangely. When there’s nothing you can say or do to make things better.
The first time the extent of Granddad’s disease hit me was when my sister and I visited him over a long weekend. Grandma had gone on holiday so we promised we would see him and keep him company for a bit. Expecting to walk in to a warm welcome of smiles and hugs, we were greeted by a nurse who was “brought in for cases like this.” Hearing those words alone made my heart drop. He had become aggressive and decided to lock himself in a side room, his “office.” He had decided he was the “boss”, of course. He only opened the door after I peered around and said “hi!” with a big smile and arms wide. He looked confused but calmed. He opened the door and welcomed the hug, letting us in.
We stayed for a short while and listened to blurred speech about nonsense. My sister and I are adamant he was talking about Pokémon. At least, we tell ourselves that to make light of the situation. I still don’t know what he was saying. He perked up a bit and left the room to join the others for lunch. We thought this was probably a good time to exit. As we went to say goodbye, he turned sour and wanted nothing to do with us. He didn’t say anything, just walked back to his “office” and locked the door. He didn’t need to say anything. We had broken his heart. I left in a hurry that day. Breaking down just outside the doors to the home. I knew he wasn’t himself but it didn’t make things any easier. Talking and having the support of my sister there at the time helped. Making light of the situation and reminding ourselves he’s still Granddad deep down also helped. I didn’t stop visiting and there were some really good visits after this where he would joke about the other mindless idiots in the dementia ward. “Look at them” he’d amuse; seemingly oblivious to the fact he was just like them.
Granddad taught me many valuable lessons in life. In that last year, he taught me the most valuable lessons of all. Surrounded by none of the possessions he had acquired over the years, it was the company of loved ones that brought joy to his days. The moments when Grandma would visit him were the times he smiled the most. This showed me that love can shine light on the darkest of days. Not knowing who we were but knowing a friendly face, he taught me that kindness can work miracles. Your time is the most precious gift you can give.
September is World Alzheimer’s Month. If you know of anyone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, or would like to know more, visit alzheimers.org.nz. There’s loads of support available.