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March 12, 2014

MORRIS: Living in total confusion

— I never paid much attention to the dementia/Alzheimer’s wing at Autumn Woods Heath Campus in New Albany before last month.

Sure, I had driven or jogged past it on numerous occasions, but it was just a building full of old people suffering from all sorts of ailments. It didn’t affect me.

That is until Feb. 19, when my father became a resident at the facility.

Now I am all too familiar with Autumn Woods and have become a regular visitor there. I’ve seen things that I never thought I would ever see in the past month. I’ve watched smart people, many former professionals, now only identified by a wheelchair and a blank stare. Once joyous folks, full of energy, have become prisoners by a brain that once guided them joyfully through life.

There is Sylvia, who walks the ward for hours with the same expression on her face. If there was just some way to connect with her, to find out what was going on inside of her head. Her smile, shown in an old photo outside her room door, has been erased by a damn disease no one really understands.

There is Mike, a former businessman. Now he sits in a wheelchair every day and just stares, talking very rarely. I did speak to him for a few minutes Sunday, although I am not sure he knew what sounds were coming out of his mouth. I just wanted to hear his voice, a voice that like many of the other 30 or so residents of this section have been silenced.

Then there is Marilyn, a former nurse who talks and talks, but never makes much sense. She is also the lover of the bunch. You can expect a hug or a kiss on the head if you become a regular visitor. I got a good-bye kiss on the head the other day from my new friend.

They are all there sitting in a world that you and I can’t grasp. Many look normal on the outside, but the one organ that controls everything has failed them, and left them in total confusion.

Dementia is nothing new. It has been around for decades. We all know people who have been affected by the disease in one way or another.

Dementia is not a specific disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s website. It defines the disease as “an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.”

Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the cases.

There are more than 5 million Americans living with the disease and now my father is one of them. It has become the sixth leading cause of death, according to the Alzheimer’s Association and one in three seniors will die from Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

For the family members, loved ones and caregivers, it is frustrating and confusing. How can a bright, functioning adult be brought to their knees by a disease that comes about with little warning? Or in my dad’s case, no warning.

He attended a wedding on a Friday, went to Floyd Memorial Hospital and Health Services two days later, disoriented after suffering a headache a week earlier. And on a Wednesday, just three days after arriving at the hospital, he was transported to Autumn Woods. While we hold out hope he will someday get to come home, we know those are long odds.  

He talks, but many days makes no sense. The stories he tells are interesting, but are all fabricated by a mind that is still working, but in a very strange way. He still knows our names, but that is about it. It’s very sad.

Some days he seems better, and there is that light of hope. But a few hours later, that light is burned out by more confusion.

Like cancer, there is no cure for dementia/Alzheimer’s. But unlike cancer, there is no hope of one day beating the disease, or at least slowing it down.

 People can live several years with dementia, becoming more debilitated with each passing day. Some are diagnosed early on and know what’s ahead of them. While others, like my dad, have no warning.  

Like most life-altering events centered around an illness, people don’t start thinking about it until after the fact.

I’ve been to Autumn Woods, have a church friend who works there, but now I see it much differently. It’s full of loving, caring employees who do God’s work. It’s a true calling. It takes compassion, knowledge, and most of all, patience. It’s tough work.

Autumn Woods is also my father’s new address. I want to see him improve; I want to get him home in the worst way. But the statistics tell me that likely won’t happen.

It’s been a tough year so far, but I have always been one who believes things happen for a reason. Maybe this has opened my eyes to how quickly life can change. Or maybe I am being asked to be the new voice for Sylvia, Mike, Marilyn, my dad and others trapped by this disease.

They are still with us, just in a very different way.

— Assistant Editor Chris Morris can be reached via email at chris.morris@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2155. Follow him on Twitter at @NAT_ChrisM

 

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