One day — just “out of the blue,” Dad said — Mom wouldn’t drive. She told him she was afraid of the car. Dad answered her fear with, “WHAAAAT???!” Next day, she got in the car and drove across town to catch a sale at her favorite store. What? Oh, well. OK.Another day, on returning home after a haircut, Mom announced that her hairdresser had called her a liar. She would never go back to Ima again. WHAAAAT???! Ima had been doing Mom’s hair for twenty years! What could have come between them? Apparently nothing. The next week Mom went in for her usual appointment. What? Oh, well. OK.That’s how Alzheimer’s usually introduces itself. A loved one does or says something totally bizarre—something you can’t fail to notice because it’s so out of character or contrary to old routines. But before you have time to worry too much, everything goes back to normal. All is well…until some other strange behavior pops up, stays just long enough to get your attention, and then vanishes as if you only imagined it.
I don’t know when those random behaviors began with my mom. My father managed to keep them hidden from me and my sister for a long time. Maybe five years.
How was that possible? Looking back, I see four things that, I believe, helped Dad keep his secret:
— Alzheimer’s reveals itself more slowly in some people than in others.
— Mom always insisted on marching to her own drummer, so Dad, my sister, and I were likely to attribute some of her bizarre behavior to her already “difficult” personality.
— Even after Alzheimer’s had a choke-hold on Mom’s mind and personality, the appearance of a visitor could trigger something I called “company behavior.” When someone other than Dad was in the house, Mom was somehow able to pull forward old habits and behaviors. So, for a while at least, Mom was able to be her old self when my sister and I came to visit.
— And finally, as the illness grew worse, Dad went straight to denial. He refused to see her confusion growing worse, and remained certain Mom—and their life together—would return to normal.
Mom and Dad lived only fifteen or twenty minutes away, so I saw them often, but for only an hour or two at a time. And in those early years, with Dad’s help, Alzheimer’s could stay hidden for one or two hours.
So it wasn’t until I took Mom and Dad on a road trip that I saw how ill Mom had become. She was fine the first day, paranoid the first night, lost in the tiny motel room the next morning. By that afternoon, she was raging, fighting with me and Dad, out of control. That afternoon was the first time I had any suspicion Mom might have Alzheimer’s.
We’ve spoken before here about the advantages of getting an early diagnosis. There’s the chance you’ll find your loved one has something other than Alzheimer’s, perhaps something that could be treated; the chance that medication could slow the course of the disease; and the surety that once you can accurately name the problem, you can handle the present with more understanding and plan for the future with far more information about what it may hold for your loved one.
But if someone is hiding the symptoms from you, as my father hid Mom’s symptoms from me, early diagnosis becomes very difficult. With no symptoms evident, why would you even suspect a loved one might have Alzheimer’s?
I have one suggestion. Looking back at my own experience, I know I should have questioned the changes in Dad’s behavior. With 20/20 hindsight, I can see all the evidence: some kind of major change was taking place in roles and activities my parents had cultivated through more than fifty years of marriage. Dad began answering the phone instead of Mom. He declined invitations for no reason, and often backed out of an event at the last minute. He began telling me all about the great frozen dinners he had found at the store, how delicious they were.
Dad asked me questions about doing laundry. I should have asked him questions about why he was doing the laundry.
Nobody wants to look for Alzheimer’s. But I urge you to be aware: the first signs that a loved one has Alzheimer’s may be the changed actions and habits of someone else in the household. Talking about what you see is better than hiding from it. Better for everyone.
“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” (2 Kings 6:16-17 NIV)
Father, open our eyes to what we need to see. It’s hard to look at this dreadful disease, but if we want to help our loved ones, we must face the hard sights and ask the hard questions. In Your strength, we can do the hard things. Thank you for Your care for our loved ones, and for us.