I recently tuned in to an ABC World News segment that Diane Sawyer was doing with Maria Shriver on Alzheimer's. Maria Shriver, the First Lady of California, is a long-time advocate for families touched by Alzheimer's and is passionately involved in trying to raise both awareness and funding to help fight this dreaded disease.
I was compelled to watch the segment by memories of my mother. Compelled by a sense of camraderie with the daily struggles and heartache of the caregivers which they were covering, as well as a curiosity rooted in fear. It is a fear borne of the memories of what my mom had to endure during the last six months of her life. My mom did not have Alzheimer's, she suffered a cranial hemmorhage which caused her memory loss, as well as the onset of advanced vascular dementia. Whether Alzheimer's or dementia, seeing someone you adore, scared, lost, confused - and in moments of lucidity - heartbroken, is enough to break your own heart and make you fearful all at once. As always, it's the unknown which is the scariest. Will you grow old gracefully? Will you have creaky bones and bad eyes, but still be all there? Or will history repeat itself, and your greatest fears become reality?
The news segment included a moving video piece entitled "The Life of a Caregiver." The piece included an elderly man whose wife is living in a nursing home and suffering with Alzheimer's. Due to the disease, the wife had begun to forget him, so he began laying by her side in bed whenever he'd visit. To her doctor's amazement, she began to remember him. Watching this lovely old gentleman lying by his wife, singing her a love song, was touching beyond words. "I love you" he told her as he caressed her face, and she responded in kind. Seeing how his love still managed to reach her, even across the distance of the lagoon created by the disease, made me cry. They say 'love conquers all'. In this case, it's more than a cliche.
The report went on to state that Alzheimer's affects more than five million people in the US, disproportionately more women, and if things remain the same, as many as 16 million families will be affected by the disease by 2050. A fact that ensures that we will be touched by Alzheimer's, whether directly or indirectly, in our lifetime.
What can you or I do? We can support, through donations or advocacy, organizations like the Alzheimer's Association; or as Maria Shriver stressed "support a larger, more centralized effort in Alzheimer's research." Maria cited comparisons to research funding for other leading diseases: $6 billion for cancer, $5 billion for heart disease and only $500 million for Alzheimer's. Lastly, prevention is the ideal. A goal we can contribute towards in the way we lead our daily lives, through a healthy diet and exercise.