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Remembering my uncle with Alzheimer’s

By Staff | Feb 11, 2011

I have noticed that this last year I have started to write more notes to myself about things that need to be done.

An AARP article on memory states that approximately one out of four individuals over the age of 65 potentially has mild memory loss or cognitive impairment which could lead to Alzheimer’s disease (ADRD).

I mention this because of my Uncle John who I was very close to. He was a merchant mariner who during the second World War had three ships blown out from under him. We used to take trips to Baltimore so he could visit old bars by the waterfront that he went into while waiting to go to sea. In a lot of ways, he was more like an older brother. We did a lot of things together.

As he got older he became more forgetful and started to have bad mood swings. He was admitted to a hospital in Washington where after a long decline he passed away. I followed him as he went through several stages of what the doctors called dementia and today is know as Alzheimer’s disease.

I mention this because he passed away in February of 1967. As I have gotten older I notice that I am a little more forgetful, especially with names. In telling his story I hope to let others see the disease more personally and will be on guard. Luckily for me, it seems I’m ok.

In the first stages, there is no impairment. Uncle John was a person who could remember his service number. He was very proud of that and would bet people he could remember it. After one such boast, he started to recite his service number but could not remember it. He got very angry and stumbled out of the room. As the months passed he seemed to forget little things like where he put his car keys. He used to think that his wallet was lost when it was where he always kept it in the top drawer of his dresser. After a year and a half, the easy-going person that I had grown up with was started to withdraw. It seemed as if sometimes he was trying to remember what to say.

Uncle John spent more time in his room alone and a lot of times he just lay in bed. When coaxed, he would go out but not often. Sometime he would still think he was aboard ship at sea, and he would bark orders. The worst part of his decline was the day he asked who I was; he could not remember that I was his nephew.

One day I came home and he was sitting in the living room. He kept mumbling to himself, “Whose house is this? Where am I?”

The last part of his life was the saddest. He sat in the hospital day room, strapped in an old-fashioned wheelchair. They were the kind with big wooden backs. He was staring off into space. He did not act as if he even saw me. He looked older than his years and looked as if he had literally shrunk. He could still speak, but his words were jumbled and made no sense.

I remembered after he died and the funeral was over I went to Baltimore and had a drink at his favorite bar on Green Street. It sat right across from where the old liberty ships were docked during World War II. I hoped that he was again at sea. That was my Uncle John.

Today there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. There is more modern medicine that controls it better and people live longer, normal lives. Diet and exercise as well as keeping your mind active seem to be practical ways of dealing with the illness.

If you feel a family member or maybe yourself needs help call your local doctor or the Jefferson County Health Department, or contact Amy Wellman, acting director of the Jefferson County Council on Aging located at 103 W. 5th St., Ranson, by calling 304-725-4044 or emailing jccoa payables@frontiernet.net.

Remember the mind you save my be your own.