As a journalist, you are occasionally assigned a story that touches a raw part of your personal life. That happened to me this week, after my editors passed along a note to write a story about Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.
When I interviewed Paul Bartel with the Alzheimer’s Society of Calgary, he mentioned approximately 17,000 people in its service area – which includes Airdrie, Rocky View County and extends north to Didsbury – are diagnosed with the disease, and the number of loved ones impacted is exponentially larger. Fear and misconceptions are often experienced by those people.
The words hit close to home for me – my grandmother is one of those 17,000 people. She received the diagnosis a few years ago, and when my father told me, a clock immediately began ticking down in my mind.
My imagination filled with visions of my grandmother immediately forgetting her children and her grandchildren, struggling to remember who we were and who she was. I don’t know where these ideas came from – television and movies, probably – but it filled me with tremendous dread. I didn’t want to witness a loved one going through that. In short, I was afraid. That fear led me to pull away, and immediately after the diagnosis, I didn’t visit my grandma as much as I should have.
As Bartel told me in our interview, those worst-case scenarios aren’t the norm, and often, someone with Alzheimer’s is able to live a full and normal life for a long time after their diagnosis. Although my grandma experiences noticeable memory issues and now lives in a place that is better equipped to care for her instead of on her own, the horror stories I painted in my mind haven’t come to pass. She’s still the grandmother I’ve known my whole life, and just the other day, I had a pleasant conversation with her about the holidays.
The last few years haven’t been as bad as I’d anticipated, but if I’m honest, I’m still scared. My grandfather, who bravely battled brain cancer for 12 years before succumbing to that disease, changed drastically near the end. A series of strokes reduced him to a person who no longer resembled the man I had admired, and it was frankly very hard to experience. I still fear that will happen to his wife.
Part of getting older is coming to grips with mortality – your own, and that of your loved ones. That’s difficult when someone you love faces a serious illness. For now, though, all I can do is make the most of the time I still have with my grandmother.