THE DEMENTIA UMBRELLA

 Several years ago, when the husband of my friend, Madalyn, was well into severe Alzheimer’s and Ken’s disease just beginning, the two of us went to several support group meetings.   The speaker one evening was a health-care professional; the title of her presentation was dementia.  How often both Madalyn and I had heard the word interspersed with Alzheimer’s, making us wonder if our husbands had Alzheimer’s or were they demented, having dementia.  Were the guidelines established enough that we could tell one disease from another?

“Dementia,” the speaker explained, “is the umbrella, and under that umbrella the medical community is placing what they believe to be related diseases, even though some people are diagnosed as having dementia.”  She went on to explain dementia as a group of symptoms caused by changes in brain function, or a decline in cognition.  Though defined, it still left us a bit baffled.  However, with so little known about the actual workings of a diseased brain and other neurological disorders, dementia as an umbrella seemed to make sense, especially when the speaker placed Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and MS (multiple sclerosis) under the umbrella.  No doubt she included other diseases lesser known to Madalyn and me totalling more than 75 in all, but the link placing them under one umbrella made good sense.  Whether the dementia symptoms may later change and develop into any of the encompassed diseases wasn’t a part of her topic, nor am I a medical person who could make such a determination, but it would seem reasonable to presume that the answer could be “yes.”

Over these past six years, as I have journeyed with Ken into the fog of Alzheimer’s it seems as if the cases under the umbrella are becoming almost epidemic.  I often hear people say, “It’s because everyone is living longer.”  That observation conjures up another burning question.  Is it inevitable that living longer will bring the majority of four score and younger people into the hopelessness of brain disease?

When Ken and I first married we were best friends with three other couples.  We were not a group, but they were best friends, nonetheless, with us, and we have kept in touch with all of them through the years.  Today, two of the women and two of the men are under the umbrella diagnosed with short-term memory loss, two with Alzheimer’s and one with dementia.  All of the disorders began somewhere in their mid to late 70s.  Yet, with our large circle of friends and acquaintances I have also observed early-onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and one death from ALS.

The mother of Barbara, my friend with short-term memory loss, was sent off to a state mental hospital in her mid 50s with what they diagnosed as brain deterioration.  Was it actually early-onset Alzheimer’s?  Earl, who has dementia, is the son of man who suffered most of his life with severe Parkinson’s.  Our  daughter, Debbie, had a favorite beau during their teen years who tumbled dramatically into full-blown Parkinson’s in his early 30s, as did celebrity Michael J. Fox.

With the power of his celebrity Fox brought world-attention, and hopefully more research, to his disease.  Of course, the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, brought the same extraordinary attention to Alzheimer’s during his 10-year battle with the disease, as did movie great Charlton Heston.  People no longer talk about a second childhood, senility, brain deterioration or sun-downer’s disease.  These umbrella diseases – with people of all ages becoming victims – are no longer swept under the carpet to be ignored as just some old folks’ ailment.

If there is a question here it would be:  Will there be a breakthrough in finding a cure, or at least management for these dreadful diseases?  If so, when? And, if a reliable treatment for AIDS was found in a relatively short period of time, what’s holding up research for The Dementia Umbrella?   According to a recent paper from Johns Hopkins the future looks alarming for 1 out of 2 people who will get Alzheimer’s if they live long enough.  That’s 50 percent.  Research and solutions are musts for the coming generations.

Presently, there are no real answers, but there are some quiet observations.  In watching my friends and reading about Fox, Reagan, Heston and others, their spouses are incredible as they walk with, sit by, and worry about those they love.  Collectively, they have all remained devoted which is not only inspirational, but encouraging to all of us caregivers traveling that same unfamiliar path.  The battle which goes on under The Dementia Umbrella can bring out the worst in people or it can bring out the best.  I don’t know everyone struggling under this covering, but those I see, read about and know are phenomenal human beings. Kudos to these caregivers everywhere.

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