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A Cruel Lot That Awaits Many

TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | PATT MORRISON

November 07, 1997|PATT MORRISON

Every TV weather forecaster, every blustery spring, can be relied upon to quote the only line of T.S. Eliot's poetry he may know, and assure us that "April is the cruelest month," before moving on to the weekend temperatures in Palm Springs.

He never recites beyond that, about April "breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain." And what can be more cruel than that, someone else's promise sprouting so lavishly amid your own desolation, flaunting what is irretrievably lost to you even as your wish for it is still alive and vital?

November, then, is the month the nation has designated for the mixing of memory and desire, in observance of one of the cruelest of the lots that life doles out. For November is Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month . . . a 30-day foretaste of the years of twilight that so many now inhabit, and that so many more very likely will.

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Every week or so, a variant of the same poignant story comes across the regional news wire. Authorities beseech the public for help in finding a 70- or 80-year-old man or woman who has wandered away from home, from a mall, from a nursing home, and who may have Alzheimer's.

Unlike diseases of class and climate, there is a randomness to Alzheimer's which masquerades as democracy. It killed Willem de Kooning, the artist, and Ben Hogan, the golfer, and an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

It is taking Barry Goldwater--as sharp a man as I have ever spent a day with--and of course it is claiming Ronald Reagan.

There was a minor dither here in September when Stanley Sheinbaum, general doer of good, told The Times at a party that he had recently been at his doctor's office when the M.D. suggested that Sheinbaum meet Reagan--and threw open a door upon the former First Patient, who was as bare as a boy in a Dixon, Ill., swimming hole.

Unethical, cruel and dehumanizing, people railed. But I heard no one complaining about the comments in the New York Times a week later by billionaire Walter Annenberg--the man with whom the Reagans spent 20 years' worth of New Year's Eves--that he won't be visiting Reagan any more because seeing him thus is so troubling: "You have a living person who ostensibly is all right, and he is just out of it, and I do not want to see him in this light anymore. I prefer to remember him as a vigorous fellow."

So would we all, Mr. Annenberg, which is why we owe people like Mr. Reagan time and patience and affection when they are no longer as we would wish them to be.

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My great-grandfather Daddy Tom was a man of vigor and habit, eating potatoes at every meal, playing exactly three games of solitaire every night before he went to bed, and keeping a stash of jellybeans in a drawer of the tiger-oak desk that is now mine.

Yet in the last five years of his life, hale and restive of body and flawed of mind, he took to wandering off, thankfully among townspeople who knew him and took him home. He would light his pipe and set fires in the wastebasket, first carelessly, then deliberately. He would demand of my great-grandmother, "Who are you? What are you doing in my house?" and finally went after her with a pair of scissors.

These things we did not learn until years later, when my great-grandmother spoke of them--reluctantly, for he was a good man, after all, and it happens to a lot of people, doesn't it? And the silence that protected him also isolated her.

My great-grandfather was a newlywed in 1906 when a German neurologist named Alois Alzheimer described the symptoms of what would bear his name, what the world was used to calling senility--a mind coming unraveled like crochet work, the faltering nerve cells, the memory loss, the failure of cognition.

After heart disease and cancer, Alzheimer's is the nation's most expensive disease. In this country, it has 4 million victims. I think that number is wrong by at least 100%. For virtually every Alzheimer's patient, there is someone else--a spouse, a child, a sibling--whose life is also circumscribed by Alzheimer's, who must care for the demands of an often vigorous body and a dwindling mind that inhabits it.

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We baby boomers are not going gentle into our own good night. Already we are demanding and getting a reinvented youth of surgically seamless faces, fat-free junk food, and air-bagged-safe sports cars. Why should anyone think we will put up with senility?

So the full-throated quest is on: What causes Alzheimer's? Aluminum? Some genetic quirk? And what can stop it? Ginkgo biloba, as the literature suggests, or aspirin, vitamin E, wine (that's the French study)? Maybe even thalidomide?

Imagine: the horror drug of our childhood, the savior drug of our dotage.

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