What Earthquakes and Alzheimer’s Have in Common

Where am I? What's throwing me around so roughly? Which way is up?

It's pitch black. Noise as if the world is ending surrounds me. I'm completely disoriented. What's happening? More than my worst nightmare, primal terror fills my consciousness. Where am I?

Oh, yes. Laurel's house, sleeping with Marja on the pull-out futon in their den. Of course… an earthquake. We need to get under a door frame.

I try to stand up. What's this stuff on the floor blocking my path? I have to crawl toward the door over whatever it is on the floor. My terror begins to subside, but the adrenaline rush keeps me shaking. Marja has woken: "Where are we?" She sounds less terrified than irritated by the interruption to her sleep.

I reach the door; the light switch doesn't work. I move out into the hallway and finally my son-in-law's flashlight pierces the darkness.

My daughter Laurel and her family live in Napa, about six miles from the epicenter of a recent 6.0 earthquake, the most powerful in northern California since 1989. It struck at 3:20 am. I had fallen asleep only an hour earlier, and the shuddering earth woke me abruptly from deep sleep. No wonder I was so disoriented.

I can still find no words to describe the terror.

The house suffered no structural damage. The worst was the mess: fallen pictures, toppled shelves, computer monitors, all thrown to the floor. Glass shards lay everywhere: from wine glasses on shelves (this is the Napa Valley, after all), from Mason jars stored above the cabinets, and from the glass protecting pictures.

In our room, which Laurel normally uses for her small Internet business, two computer screens and all sorts of supplies spilled across the room. Near the door had been five fairly heavy wooden boxes stacked loosely one on top of the other, unattached to a wall. The crashing and banging that had awakened me was the whole stack's toppling and spilling its contents over the room. Fortunately, our bed wasn't in its path.

Given the power of the earthquake, the Napa area also got off relatively lightly. Three people were critically injured but none killed, gas and water lines broke causing some fires, some buildings were damaged as were some roads. More immediately for us, no trains would be moving until railroad inspectors approved the tracks, bridges and tunnels within a hundred-mile radius. We rescheduled our trip home for the next day.

My thoughts keep returning to that initial minute of terror. The terror had no object, nothing I could identify as dangerous. It was just a moment of sheer chaos, disruption, and unknowing unlike any I'd ever known. I've searched for words to describe the feeling but have found nothing remotely up to the task.

I wonder if some people, upon learning their diagnosis of Alzheimer's or other dementia, experience a similar terror, a nameless dread. Perhaps long after the diagnosis, some still wake in the middle of the night to that visceral panic, even beyond the rational fear of the disease. Words of comfort cannot soothe the terror, much less dispel it.

It's painful for the rest of us to remain physically and emotionally present to the terror of another. We, too, are afraid of the helplessness and may pull away, unable to bear it when our ministrations are ineffective or, worse, rebuffed. At such moments we can only share in the agony of the one we love... and remain present.

An author and former physician, Dr. David Hilfiker was diagnosed in 2012 with a progressive mild cognitive impairment. His doctor thought it was Alzheimer's but additional testing proved this initial diagnosis to be wrong. Now David must learn how to come to terms with the reality of worsening cognitive issues that appear to have no cause.

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