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Alzheimer's takes the memory, but not the love.

Byline: WRITE ON By LaRee Beckley For The Register-Guard

My son and my father stand at each other's side, grandson and grandfather, looking at the snapshots on the dining room wall. Photos of the entire family, including my parents' four daughters, 20 grandchildren - 14 of them with spouses - and 27 great-grandchildren, are tacked to a bulletin board on the wall.

I am standing nearby in the hallway, watching and listening, with a growing suspicion that my father no longer recognizes many of the faces in his own family.

My son has not been to my parents' house for a number of years, and although he recognizes my sisters and a few of the cousins he played with as a child, he is curious about some of the unfamiliar faces before him. He points to the picture of a cousin he hasn't seen for some time, and asks, "Who is this?"

My dad steps closer, studying the picture intently, and replies, "Let me see, I believe that's ... ." He pauses, apparently searching for the correct name among the many possibilities.

Mom is in the kitchen, and Dad's hesitation seems to be her cue to poke her head through the doorway and identify the photo. The routine is repeated more than a couple of times, and I begin to wonder if my son had pointed to my picture whether Dad could identify me.

I live a thousand miles from my parents, and Mom and I have exchanged weekly letters for many years. Recently, she's been complaining to me about Dad. She writes of faucets that leak and air conditioning that doesn't work. She tells me Dad spends days trying to repair them, but cannot.

Normally, he would have no trouble repairing anything that needed his attention. Dad has built two houses, and did extensive remodeling to the house my parents live in now. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren have delighted in his innovations, including motors added to bicycles and handles to skateboards.

One summer, he assembled an electric car out of an old Ford Pinto and a trunk full of batteries, and he and my mom test-drove it around the neighborhood. Smart and competent, Dad could be counted on to fix any household problem, appliance or automobile.

On this visit, however, I observe that this is no longer true. No longer is he the competent fixer of all things needing repair.

Instead, he has difficulty performing even routine tasks. As he makes breakfast for us one morning, Mom has to guide him through the process. Although he has been making pancakes every Wednesday morning for the past 20 years, she now tells him where the pans are, which ingredients to use and their measurements. Dad was driving before he turned 15, but on a trip downtown, Mom tells him where to park the car, which lane to use, and that the gas tank needs refilling.

Over the past year, it seems that my parents' relationship has changed to one I barely recognize. If the changes in Dad were physical rather than behavioral, I am certain both my parents would agree on his need to see a doctor.

The night before my son and I left for our trip home, I encountered Mom by herself in the laundry room. I seized the moment, and asked if she thought Dad might have Alzheimer's. She admitted that one of my sisters had asked her the same question.

Surprisingly, Mom said she didn't believe his problems were that serious. She did say, however, that Dad's behavior was distressing her in other ways besides his apparent lack of memory.

She told me of the sleepless nights when he roamed throughout the house. Also, in public he was becoming so friendly with total strangers that she found herself urging him away from his conversations with them.

Hugging her, I said I knew almost nothing about dementia, but thought whatever was wrong with Dad might be serious, and I hoped to help her find out what it was.

The next morning, Mom and Dad stood side by side in their driveway, waving goodbye to me, as they have always done after a visit. As I returned their waves and promised to drive carefully, I also was promising myself that I would find out all I could about dementia and Alzheimer's as soon as I returned home.

Eventually, with encouragement and advice from my sisters and me, Mom took Dad to his doctor, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Presently, he is taking medication for the disease, and remains at home in Mom's loving care.

These days, he greets the members of his family with an easy, welcoming smile. Even though he may not remember a name, or even the face, I believe he must recognize the love we will always have for him.

LaRee Beckley, 61, of Eugene is recently retired from the federal government. Her mother is 80 and her father is 83.

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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 28, 2004
Words:885
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