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Michelle Bennett Stieglitz: Let’s all try to learn about Alzheimer’s

When I was a young woman, my mother would cut out newspaper articles about memory loss (later identified as Alzheimer’s disease). It was her way of teaching and preparing my brothers and me to care for her as she aged. This practice was a little confusing to me. I worried that her confident predictions would help to make it become true. She was, however, an intelligent and thoughtful woman.

I read the articles and, though I lived away from home at that time, I eventually saw a few signs that related to what I had read. I recognized the tension between her and her sisters in caring for their mother. After years of sharing the responsibility of having my grandmother live with their families, they finally admitted her into a “home for the elderly.” There were many phone calls to my mother about my grandmother wandering out of the facility. She would later be found walking down the neighboring streets.

Years later, caring for my mother, I experienced the signs that indicated to me it was time to take the next progressive step in her care. Though signs of memory loss had been evident, I noticed that she was becoming more confused and anxious. Seeing her tinker with the fuse box in her home was my sign that she needed to be with other people. Although she was determined to continue to live as a strong, independent woman, it was now a matter of safety. So we used the funds from the sale of her house to pay for the cost of an independent living facility. She was very happy at that time.

The next sign came nearly two years later, when the facility’s dietary director called me and told me he had seen my mother wandering down a busy street that morning while he drove to work. The alarm then sounded loudly; it was time to move her to a facility with more care.

These were the milestones that marked the progression of the disease that she had predicted. The important point is that she did not merely predict it, she had educated me every opportunity she could, with conversations and articles that provided new science, new understanding and new methods of care. This education was sad, but it made the disease less frightening for me.

My long-term education and awareness also make it difficult for me to accept people’s comments that demean or ridicule people who are forgetful or genuinely losing their memory. It’s sad that a joke, a tease or an insult is so easily directed at someone suffering from a devastating illness. Our local Alzheimer’s Association helped me when I needed information or emotional support during my mother’s decline.

When a Silver Alert was issued recently for a woman in Buffalo, I took a detour in my day. I drove down Genesee Street and its side streets looking for her. Where would she go during the rain? Was she safe? My sincere sympathies go out to this woman’s family.

I hope that everyone makes an effort to be educated about the signs of Alzheimer’s disease, not just those faced with this challenge with someone they love. The community can be helpful. We can monitor our neighbors by looking for the performance of their routine chores (picking up mail, taking out garbage, etc.), we can stop ridiculing those who are developing memory loss and we can all be alert to the signs indicating our neighbors’ need for greater care.