A Fate Worse Than Death

by Alan W. Goodson


There are many ways to die, some worse than others, but for millions of people there is a fate worse than death. It is an incurable disease known as Alzheimer's and its effect can be equally devastating on the individual, the victim's family, and the victim's friends. Perhaps the best way to understand the disease is to visualize it through the eyes of those victims.

The old woman sat quietly in her rocking chair, staring vacantly out the window into the bright, crisp world that was slowly becoming foreign to her. Her gnarled hands, twisted by arthritis and discolored by age spots, grasped the family Bible tightly. She was not interested in reading the verses or passages within. She could quote most of them from memory. She held the Bible for another reason. It contained the names of her children, grandchildren, and deceased husband along with many other handwritten entries on birth dates, marriages, and other significant family events. Each entry cast a vague light of recollection in the growing darkness of her life. She would use the entries to jog her failing memory, much like a seamstress uses bits and pieces of colorful fabrics. She would weave a patchwork quilt of memories that defined who she used to be, who she was, and to cover the terrifying fact of who she was becoming. She felt very much alone although she knew she was not alone. Her family would never trust her to be by herself again. They feared that she would forget to turn off the stove, setting their lives ablaze as well as her own, or injure herself and not remember who to call, or where she lived so that help could come. Her daughter and son-in-law were in the next room tearfully discussing her future. The family could not afford the devastating costs of placing her in a nursing home, nor could either of them afford to quit their jobs to care of her full time, which was what the doctor had strongly recommended. They spoke in whispers, each statement in the form of a question without an answer. Then, in silence, they both looked out the window at the falling leaves. The beautiful fall colors of the leaves remaining on the trees were in sharp contrast to the dull, brown, lifeless colors of the ones lying dead on the ground. The scene reminded them of the life of the woman in the next room who was becoming a stranger to them. Her life had once been vibrant and colorful too, but was now fading before their helpless eyes. She had always been active and involved in a half dozen family and community projects. She had been busy constantly, working with her hands, gardening, or cooking from scratch. Her gentle, infectious laughter could often be heard coming from the kitchen, carrying with it the delicious aroma of fresh baked pies or breads. Those days were gone now. She could no longer remember the ingredients, or even where she kept the recipes she was constantly sharing with her large circle of friends.

Her friends rarely visited anymore, or would make quick, transparent excuses for leaving shortly after arriving. They could not bear to see her or speak with her about the shared experiences she could no longer clearly remember. Long, uncomfortable silences would transpire when they visited. She would confuse their names or forget them completely, along with the subject of the conversation. Sometimes they would whisper amongst themselves conspiratorially, shocked and dismayed over the rapid deterioration of someone whom they had previously considered to be a trusted and reliable friend. They were afraid to take her with them on their usual outings, not wanting to take the responsibility, and unwilling or unable to fully comprehend the extent of her illness. Her friends drifted away one by one. Their visits became progressively shorter, being replaced by brief phone calls, then disappearing entirely. As her memories, family, and friends gradually faded into obscurity, the walls of her life slowly closed in around her, leaving her cloaked in a near impenetrable shell of isolation from which there was no escape.

The tragedy of Alzheimer's Disease deeply touches everyone who suffers from it as well as the people who care for them and know them. Its effects are as devastating and real as death itself, and in some ways can be even worse. While death has a certain ring of finality from which a person can mourn and begin the recovery process, Alzheimer's creeps insidiously and relentlessly into the very fabric of life.



Copyright © 1999 Alan W. Goodson. Email: arkrebel@mail.cswnet.com
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