Monday, April 20, 2009

Still Alice

When I was in my teens, I volunteered at a nursing home in my little town. We did different things for the residents, filled up their thermoses with ice, dropped off their mail, read books and newspapers to them, painted the ladies' nails and wheeled them down for dinner. It was a humbling and rewarding "job." Visiting the patients there gave me perspective that a lot of 15 and 16 year old kids didn't get to experience. Two days a week, I was surrounded by more combined wisdom that I had ever been around before or since. I know that I walked away from that place gaining more than I actually gave.

Volunteering there was the first time that I ever came face to face with Alzheimer's disease. A member of my extended family was a patient there and she had the disease. It made me sad to see her knowing that she didn't know who she was anymore. She had been a preacher for many years, but the disease had turned her in to a person that her family didn't recognize. She cursed and was angry a lot which was totally out of character from the woman she once was. I figured I would be pretty angry too if I woke up every day not remembering the one before or knowing where I was or how I had come to be there. She (of course) wasn't the only patient in the home that had Alzheimer's. There was one poor old man that we would find wandering out of his room naked all the time. He was so disoriented and had no hold on reality. He didn't know he was naked. He probably didn't grasp the concept of what naked was anymore. I, being a weirdo teenager, was a little scared of him and the others that were like him. I didn't understand the disease and the way it affected the mind and I had several misconceptions about it that stuck around with me into adulthood.

Last night, I finished reading the book, Still Alice about a successful Harvard professor who in her 50s is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. Before reading it, I naively assumed that Alzheimer's only struck old people. I never considered it as disease that someone as young as my parents could be diagnosed with. This book really opened my eyes though. It is beautifully written and you get sucked in to Alice's world immediately. You follow her through the first signs of the disease presenting itself in small ways, to her shocking diagnosis, and throughout the progression of the disease. It is a heartbreaking account. Although you know already that there is no cure for Alzheimer's, you still root for Alice and hope that by some miracle, she will get better by the end of the book. I won't spoil it any further, I'll just say that I think everyone should read this book. It will touch you. I will scare you. It will open your eyes. I pray that no one in my family is ever hit with this terrible illness and I await news that researchers and doctors will find a cure for those that are afflicted. Until then, there are going to be many real life Alices out there living and dying with Alzheimer's. It's a sad story, but one that I needed to hear.


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