“The only upside of Alzheimer’s I’ve found so far: introducing my dad to “new” things. This evening I took him to Starbucks, and he was like a kid on Christmas. It was endearing and heartbreaking at the same time.” Elizabeth, Chuck’s middle daughter, November, 2015.
We’ve known Chuck for probably 35 years. He’s only five years older than we are, turning seventy this year. And these days that isn’t really old.
He and Ben met, of all places, at a Roy Rogers Restaurant marketing meeting where Ben was presenting a marketing concept. They became fast friends, and the three of us had a lot of fun times together. Many of those times Chuck’s dog, a huge Great Dane named Verushka, accompanied us. We included Chuck in most of our holiday dinners since he didn’t have any local family, and he loved our Eastern Shore home cooking, sometimes having two or three helpings when everyone else was already full, and never having a weight problem!
Chuck was best man at our wedding, while Verushka patiently waited outside for a slice of wedding cake (although this picture makes her look a LOT smaller than she was). When our daughter was born, Chuck was her godfather.
A few years after Ben and I were married, Chuck met Patty, who was working at the same company he was, and ended up proposing to her one night when we were all out to dinner by dropping her engagement ring in a wine glass. She was so busy playing with baby Ashley, it took her almost an hour to notice it, and we still joke about it today! We were afraid she’d either swallow it, or the waiter would take her glass away before she found it (fortunately she did find it, and didn’t swallow it!). They were married a few months later.
When Chuck received a job offer out of the area six months later, we sadly said goodbye to our friends, and wished them the best with their new life in Las Vegas. Since he was working for the same company as Ben at the time, we were sure we’d still get to see them at company meetings.
But that didn’t happen. Chuck changed jobs a few times, and the years flew by, and unfortunately, since they’d moved several times because of those job changes, we lost track of each other. A number of years later we finally heard from Chuck, and were terribly upset to learn that after numerous moves to numerous states, and three beautiful daughters, their marriage had ended. Although we tried to keep up with him after that, when we’d try to contact him, the last numbers he’d given us were disconnected. And the last places he’d worked, well, he wasn’t there anymore. And we had no way to contact the few family members he had left.
Fortunately, there was Facebook, and one day I found him on there. Ben and I were thrilled to be able to catch up. But he wasn’t on there a lot, and the times we’d try to talk to him in private messages, we’d get short answers, some of which didn’t make a lot of sense.
Then Patty connected with us. I was so happy! We’d missed her, and were so glad to re-connect with her, as well as their three daughters we’d never met. We exchanged so many private messages back and forth, I thought we were going to wear out our keyboards.
That’s when we found out about Chuck.
There’s a song that says “Friends are friends forever…” Some friendships are like that. You may be separated by years and circumstances, but good friends remain good friends, and when we reconnect, it’s like the years melt away. My husband and I are fortunate to have several special friends like that.
In Chuck’s case, though, more than the years had melted away.
Chuck was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, which had probably started presenting itself in little ways even before he turned 60, which would have explained his inability to hold a job over the past years, as well as our losing touch with him so many times.
At that time, Patty told us Chuck remembered Ben and me, and evidently still talked about us a lot. He remembered his daughters. He remembered Patty, and he knew they were divorced. But he didn’t always remember what day it was. He’d lost his driver’s license several years before, because he had become too distracted to drive. He would wander, and people would have to call Patty to come get him, because he couldn’t remember how to get home. He hadn’t been able to work for years, and required someone to come in where he was living to clean and fix a few meals. Patty sadly had to find a new home for his dog, because he would forget to take care of him.
Because he had no one else to look out for him, Patty had stepped in and was doing everything she could to see that he was taken care of. Even though she has remarried, she still cares for Chuck, and wants to be sure he is watched after, for his sake as well as for their daughters. Thank goodness for Patty!
It was a sobering realization for us. It’s much harder for his three daughters, the oldest of whom is just a few years younger than our daughter.
Alzheimer’s goes in a vicious cycle. It’s exhausting for those in the cycle. And heartbreaking as well, because there is no cure. It can begin at any age. It can progress slowly, or it can begin to progress rapidly to the point that the patient forgets who his family is, and who he is. No one knows how it will affect their loved one, or how quickly; only that it does.
There’s more to the story. Far too often, people have a tendency to think of Alzheimer’s victims as the elderly, who are expected to go through changes such as this toward the end of their lives. Which is simply not true. Chuck probably started experiencing symptoms before he turned sixty. Early-onset Alzheimer’s affects up to 5% of its 5,000,000 victims, and can occur in patients as young as in their 40’s or 50’s.* Since patients are sometimes not accurately diagnosed in the beginning stages, it’s really difficult to tell.
What I can tell you, is that this disease affects not only the patient, but everyone who loves them. No one in their circle of family and friends remains untouched. And all of their lives are forever changed.
Until we had these discussions with Patty about Chuck, we had no idea how very devastating this can really be. Wednesday, his story continues, with “Remembering Chuck, Part Two”.
Note: If you have a loved one suffering from this disease, please seek out a support group. Read all that you can about it. Ask questions. And above all, continue to love that person. Respect them. Don’t belittle them when they don’t make sense with what they say. They cannot help it. Their world is not quite the same as it was any more.