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Alzheimer’s: Relentless, Costly, Incurable

This year 450,000 Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease will die.*

A number that large is hard to understand, so let’s cut it to, say 40. That’s roughly the number of people I saw a few months ago when I visited the wing of the south Florida facility where my mother now lives.

She didn’t recognize me. No one recognizes anyone. Only the caretakers recognize the regular visitors, like my sister, who lives close and comes often. But the residents? If conversation were possible, each would have a story – about a hometown, a childhood, a first love, wartime, marriage, parenthood…

One might tell you about living through the Great Depression. Or about the older musician she impulsively married while still a teenager. Or about spending the 1950’s in Paris. Or about a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds.

No more. This is one of the cruelest things about Alzheimer’s. It wipes away memories as flames consume paper photos.

Talk to the children of Alzheimer’s victims and you quickly realize the awful toll the disease also takes on families.

It’s not uncommon to hear adult children say death would be a mercy for the people left as Alzheimer’s runs its gruesome course are no longer their parents. They’re living ghosts.

That sounds harsh, but it’s not like there’s a cure on mom’s Florida horizon, where Alzheimer’s shot up 25 percent from 2000 to 2010. And where she was doing just fine not so long ago.

In 2000, my mother was in her late sixties, still smacking tennis balls, gliding over dance floors, devouring novels and reveling in her grandchildren. All this followed a long career as comptroller for a moving company, and later a jewelry wholesaler, not bad for a Brooklyn girl who never made it to college.

Now the eyes that kept the company books straight can’t even read these words. Or the novel I wrote and dedicated to her a few years back. I flew to see her as soon as it came out. It was a difficult visit, but we did have a moment of clarity that I’ve described in this video.

Since then, things have gotten far worse, which won’t surprise those who have lost someone to the disease. A new study from the Alzheimer’s Association shows:

  • Alzheimer’s is the only cause of death among the top 10 in America without a way to prevent it, cure it, or even slow its progression.
  • For now, there are no survivors. If you do not die from Alzheimer’s, you die with it.
  • More than five million Americans live with the disease, which is the nation’s sixth-leading cause of death.
  • This year, Alzheimer’s will cost the nation $203 billion. That will skyrocket to $1.2 trillion by 2050.

It’s not that I want my mother to die. To us – and I’m betting there are plenty of other adult children who feel this way – it feels like she passed long ago. All we want is to remember how she was, and how she lived, and to have a dignified funeral.

Is that wrong?

* Source: Alzheimer’s Association report.

Moment of Clarity video.

Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent. Steve is a blogger for JenningsWire.