Hearing The Words From Houston Alzheimer's Patients

More than 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, an incurable disease. That number is projected to triple by the year 2050. In Texas alone, 340,000 people have Alzheimer’s. But what does it mean to live with it?

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease that affects a person’s memory, thinking, and behavior. The Alzheimer’s Association’s figures show that while other major causes of death fell from 2000 to 2008, Alzheimer’s rose 66 percent in the same period.

Kelly McCann is with the Association’s Houston chapter. She says this number is only likely to increase with baby boomers aging.

“We want people to know about it now so we can try to get out in front of what is potentially a tsunami of Alzheimer’s cases.”

In Houston, one organization is doing just that. Amazing Place, in the Upper Kirby area, is a day care center for people with memory loss. Lunch is a busy time here. In a long room there are six tables sitting ready for their diners. People are milling about, trying to find their spot and happily chatting with each other. A majority of them have Alzheimer’s but they don’t all know it. Like Bonnie. She has heard of it though.

“Alzheimer’s, yes, I don’t have it.”

One person in the room seems to know everyone. It’s Tracy Brown, the director of the center. She insists that everyone who comes here is treated as a participant and not labeled with having Alzheimer’s. All the staff takes a day to sit and have lunch with the participants; today, it's Brown’s turn.

Susan Giles works with Brown. Her experience with Alzheimer’s is not just professional but also personal. Giles’ father, a veteran, has Alzheimer’s.

“It’s heartbreaking to see a person that is a hero, who was known for his bright mind not be able to remember and it makes me wish that I could have my father back but I know that I now have the honor to serve him.”

Giles says while caring for people with Alzheimer’s, what matters is not how much they can or can’t remember, but how they are made to feel.

“So I’ve learned never to try and make him, alright, daddy do you remember this, this and this, ever ever to make him anxious … when he’s telling me the story for the 7th or sometimes 12th time, 'yes dad, oh wow, well tell me more about that.'”

Kelly McCann of the Alzheimer’s Association says there is a big difference between Alzheimer’s and simply growing old. The key is to identify whether the symptoms disrupt daily life, whether it is a recurring pattern, and if the person has trouble completing familiar tasks.

Back at Amazing Place Susan Giles says the daily focus is on the positives despite the difficult situation. The one positive she takes from her father’s Alzheimer’s is his new openness.

“He is far more vulnerable and accessible. And so this disease has allowed me to hear his words of I love you a lot more.”