What a terrible condition dementia is.
It takes the brain of a bright, loving, proud, communicative – add your own adjectives – individual and lessens their functioning to something more like an infant. The fog that gradually moves into the mind like fog pouring into the countryside after a rain storm, fills the brain with mush that can no longer make sense out of the simplest of jobs.
Charlie took his ATV out one day and drove onto his hillside to enjoy the early fall scenery and came back a different man.
I hadn't noticed any symptoms prior to that afternoon, nor had he complained of any mental problems up until that day. Turns out, he had suffered a mild stroke that sent him on a slowly spiraling down draft to vagueness.
As he drove the hillside on his well-marked trails, he suddenly became confused and didn't know how to get back home. He sat shaken, in one spot, until the fog in his head began to lift, then drove back to the house.
It would be two days before he gathered his composure over the event to the point where he could mention the problem to me.
Following a series of cognitive tests and a CAT scan doctors confirmed the diagnosis of stroke-induced dementia. Apparently he had previously suffered several smaller such events, without realizing what was going on.
Had either of us been observing his actions carefully, we might have realized earlier that something was not right. But people with early dementia can be very astute at covering up the symptoms, until it is no longer possible.
It soon became evident that this Mr. Fix-It, fighter pilot, previously brilliant man was declining into someone who was ultimately going to depend on me for everything.
Several small ischemic attacks have occurred since that first noticeable episode. Each one has taken its toll. He is no longer able to drive – his skills seem to be okay, but his sense of direction is lost forever. I don't trust him to drive, even with me navigating, because I'm afraid he won't remember where to find the brake pedal or that a red light means stop.
Charlie now gets lost in the grocery store so he waits in the car for me to do the shopping. One day I asked him to put something on the washer, and his response was, "Where's the washer?" although he walks by it several times a day.
I have to leave him alone on occasion to go to appointments or some other event. I carefully tell him where I am going and what time I will be back. By the time I get home he is sometimes in a panic because he didn't know where I was and he worried that something had happened to me.
I recently arranged for a Medic-Alert system to be installed in the home. But I am quite certain that if he should fall while I am away he won't remember to push the button to call for help. This means we are rapidly approaching the point where I'll have to get someone to stay with him if I have to go out for a short period.
Yet they tell me he's still in the early stages of dementia.
He still recognizes me, and other family members; he may not recall their names, but the faces are still familiar. He has forgotten that his sister died; he never mentions his brothers who live away from us, although they were always very close. When they call to talk to him, it's like he is talking to strangers. He has nothing to say to them and hands the phone over to me.
It's sad and frustrating to watch the brain turn to Swiss cheese, letting all the things learned over a lifetime slowly fall through the holes. But that's the way with dementia.
We learn to live with it and cope the best we can.