by Carrie Kirk
I have two older women in my life. One is my beautiful mother. Eighty-four in just two weeks and still lovely and full of verve and passion. (Please don't get her started on the upcoming presidential election though.) The other is my late husband's mother. She is 94 and still puts on pink lipstick every morning and reads The New Yorker weekly. Lucky. So lucky that, despite a little forgetfulness here and there, neither displays symptoms of marked degenerative dementia, nor signs of Alzheimer's disease. They both remain "all in."
Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and other thinking skills. It eventually impedes the ability to carry out the simplest tasks, such as drinking out of a straw.
In most people with Alzheimer's disease, symptoms first appear after age 60, and often the person who has it dies years earlier than he or she would otherwise. Today, according to estimates from the Alzheimer's Association, the disease affects more than 5.3 million Americans.
A daunting prospect on the horizon is that as the baby-boom generation moves through retirement, that number could climb to more than 11 million by 2040.
Currently, one out of eight people age 65 or older has Alzheimer's. My two older ladies are included in that grim statistic's lucky seven. As I have watched my mom and mom-in-law climb in numbers, I have seen parts of themselves exit out the backdoor -- things like the ability to climb on a stationary bike or play a game of mediocre tennis. But other parts have pulled closer to the table.
For my mom, she's ramped up her ravenous penchant to keep her eye on the conservative and even prudent political tendencies in our country and blow the whistle -- really loud and really long -- if she sees it swinging too far right. Other parts that tenaciously remain include her depth of reading material and her encouragement to enjoy each day and have fun. And, despite her white roots, hurting hips and need for a daily nap, my mother's inner light burns brighter.
What about the unlucky one of the eight then? Does any part of that person who is diminished by the effects of Alzheimer's still shine and persist? Are they -- the essence of them -- still in there, in the aging and fading body and mind?
I recently watched The Alzheimer's Project on HBO. It features a four-part documentary series along with 15 short supplemental films, a website and an outreach campaign that is both nationwide and community-based. I know that watching the series and poking around the website cannot replace being a doctor who studies the disease or -- more than that -- being a family member of someone who is receding from the person they once were. But when I watched the first of the four documentaries "The Memory Loss," which featured an up-close and personal look at seven individuals living with Alzheimer's, I was struck by the progression of the disease and what it took away -- but also what managed to stay behind.
Two of the featured individuals had artistic backgrounds and interests. Woody in Michigan had been a singer, both as a soprano-singing child and then as an adult performing with an acapella group.
Josephine in Minnesota had been a hard-working mother and loved to paint on canvas and rocks of any shape and size. Both had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Woody, 81 at the time of filming, was 14 years into his diagnoses while Josephine, 77, was just five years into hers.
They both had trouble with simple tasks. They were being cared for -- Woody in a memory center and Josephine in her daughter's home. They roamed, Woody whistling and Josephine making a noise over and over again that went up and down a musical scale as if making bubbles with her mouth. So much was lost for both of them ... but not everything.
Woody was able to attend a concert of his vocal group, be invited onto stage and join in. No practice, no hesitation and singing the lead. Josephine, although no longer painting, would take objects around the house and create vignettes, small artistic scenes for her caregiver daughter to happen upon. Whether it be Woody's quiet rendition of Night and Day in the memory center's dining room while waiting for his breakfast to be served or Josephine's arrangement of the orange novelty hippo atop a plate of mac and cheese, it's as if they were saying, "I'm still here."
According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences in2013, experts say the findings show that the ability to draw (both from memory and spontaneously) and to perform music both are preserved with advanced dementia. These same experts went on to say that the study showed that teaching art and music may help ward off the condition.
Dementia and Alzheimer's are very different from each other, but even in the late stages of Alzheimer's, a person may be able to tap a beat or sing lyrics to a song from his or her childhood, providing a way to connect long after verbal communication has become difficult.
Both art and music provide an opportunity for self-expression. The diminished cognitive self is still there and can surface even in an encapsulated moment. There have been those individuals afflicted with this disease who have been artist more than Alzheimer's patient: Willem de Koonig, Carolus Horn, William Utermohlen, Mary Hecht.
And back to Woody from the HBO documentary. He often says to fellow memory-care residents or his devoted wife and daughter who often come to visit, "We are lucky to be together." Woody does not focus, as I have, on the luck of where he lands in the statistic of "one of every eight people over the age of 65." He is the one.
You, me and the two older women in my life are currently not. Perhaps the luck he often speaks of is the power of self-expression that is able to push through Alzheimer's brain tangles and plaque. The luck resides in his song.