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Oliver: Alzheimer’s disease not unlike battle of attrition

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Once a year, I have to come face to face with the stark reality that I am losing my husband.

No, he’s not going anywhere physically, but the annual visit to the neurologist forces me to confront the harsh truth about Tony’s Alzheimer’s disease.

He was diagnosed with this progressive, irreversible brain disorder four years ago.

Back then, we knew that he was having memory issues, ones bad enough that they were affecting his ability to do his job. Of course, Tony was doing everything he could to minimize how bad things were getting, while I was slowly coming to grips that this was more than a simple vitamin deficiency.

Still, no one quite prepares you for having a doctor tell you that the love of your life is going to lose a part of himself on a daily basis. No amount of research can get you ready for what is turning out to be even harder than caring for a parent who develops dementia.

My Tony has been my best friend for decades. He still is, but things are decidedly different.

He was a college-educated, witty and intelligent guy whose interests were many and who, despite being a little on the quiet side, would talk to me for hours on any number of subjects. Get him started on topics such as bow-string truss roofs or anything fire service-related and he could be downright chatty. Even in the quiet times, we were communicating constantly.

These days, he seems to have been swallowed up by silence. Sure, he sometimes will try to reach out to tell me something, but even that seems to be a struggle to find the most basic of words. I often rely on our many years together to guess at what he’s trying to say.

What’s heartbreaking is that he was a man of words, a writer and a copy editor just as I am. In his healthier days, he was quick with a turn of phrase and an excellent sounding board on all things grammar.

So much has been lost in the past year. He’s stopped driving, stopped using anything even remotely dangerous, such as the lawnmower. He’s cut back on cooking and doing even some of the most routine household chores. And his ability to problem-solve and keep himself occupied appears to have evaporated into the ether.

None of this has been easy for him. So often I see the frustration in his eyes as he realizes that he isn’t doing something right. A recent error in making coffee left my dear, sweet husband near tears.

Not surprisingly, it nearly broke me, too. It’s not easy to see those we love struggle. It’s even harder when we realize that it’s only going to get worse.

I recently came across a beautiful description of marriage and what it feels like to lose a spouse. Marriage is like two trees that grow up next to each other, their roots becoming intertwined over the years. When one tree suffers, the other one feels it.

In our case, our trees have been intertwined for a very long time. His tree, though, seems to be under attack from kudzu, a fast-growing, perennial vine that is known for killing trees by choking and smothering them.

In our case, the kudzu is the Alzheimer’s, which we’ve called Fred in an attempt to help Tony differentiate between the “bad” that Fred does and the “good” aspects of Tony that remain.

As hard as we fight Fred, we know that just like kudzu chokes out a tree, Fred someday will win.

So in the meantime, we do what we can to slow Fred down, to keep Tony as active and engaged as possible. The doctor says we’re doing everything that we can. Yet, the decline is real and once a year I have to come face to face with it.

It may be a losing battle, but I’m no quitter. Happily, neither is Tony.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

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