The Memory Thief

Her father's struggle with Alzheimer's reveals the disease's ability to steal all that is memorable. 

by Dianne Greco • More.com Member { View Profile }

It’s a scary thing, this Alzheimer’s business. We’ve all heard of it, joked about our “senior moments,” read the occasional article and perhaps kicked the idea around that we are on the verge of it. And after hearing about Pat Summit, the Tennessee women’s basketball coach who, at the age of 59, was diagnosed with early onset dementia, it became painfully clear that it could happen to anyone.

According to The Alzheimer’s Association, this disease affects over 5.4 million Americans, and is the sixth leading cause of death. However, of the top 10 causes of death in America, Alzheimer’s is the only one, at this point in time, that is not preventable or curable. (Visit alz.org for more valuable information.)

Some pretty terrifying statistics, indeed.

It wasn’t until my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimers that all of this really hit home. Questions, fear and anger rattled around in my head like ping pong balls gone wild. Is it hereditary? Did dad’s drinking and smoking make it worse? Am I looking at my future?

My father had been an active marine surveyor, and in his heyday, had a successful mom-and-pop business from his home office, surveying anything from motor boats to barges for insurance companies and hopeful buyers. Mom took care of the accounts and dad would board a boat, ferry or yacht and crawl through every inch of it looking for defects, damage and dangers. Tall, trim, and detail oriented, he would think nothing of squeezing his six-foot-two frame into the very bowels of a vessel, conduct his comprehensive tests and submit a lengthy report to the requesting party.

My family and I were lucky enough to have purchased the house right next door, and my son had the luxury of having his grandparents around for his entire childhood. We loved being able to pop over to chat or get together for a spur-of-the-moment meal together, and just knowing they were right there was a comfort and pleasure to us all.

When the tragedy of 9/11 changed the landscape of not only New York City but the entire world, it had a devastating effect on dad’s business. Always a man defined by his profession, he had a hard time wrapping his head around the idea of losing his livelihood. Insurance companies cut back due to massive payouts, and the average Joe suddenly couldn’t afford the luxury of a boat or the gas to run it. The threat of war loomed as the economy tanked, and real estate careened into a nosedive that it hasn’t pulled out of to this day. And so, after years of trying to keep their business afloat, my parents decided to call it a day and retire. Selling their lovely old home in the harbor town of Port Jefferson, New York for a song, they headed west to retire in the beautiful, pristine state of Washington.

My oldest brother Steven lives in the exquisite San Juan Islands of Washington with his family, and the cost of living there is considerably less than in New York. For my parents, it held the promise of an easier, less expensive lifestyle.

They were happy in the honeymoon stage of the move. A new condo, breathtaking views, and the opportunity to get to know my brother’s family better all sparked an excitement in them, and they were eager to explore this new territory. They were busy, active and engaged in making the most of their new Pacific Northwest life. Dad was still a bit conflicted about retiring and toyed with the idea of some kind of employment to fill the void, but just couldn’t seem to make any good connections. He’d been self employed for so long; it was hard for him not to be the boss, and he didn’t take too kindly to anyone telling him what to do, especially at the age of 79.

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