By Lori Murphy
We started noticing some issues with Dad’s short-term memory in 2005. He was always a great conversationalist, and he loved to chat with my sisters and me and our families — especially his grandchildren. After we had to repeat the answer to a question that he asked three times within two minutes, we knew that something wasn’t quite right. It was obvious that some type of dementia was setting in, but we couldn’t have known the journey that we were about to embark on.
Before the diagnosis
I am the middle sister of three, all of whom reside in Yakima, WA, where we were raised. Our older brother, Mike, was tragically killed in a car accident at the young age of 20 and it changed all of our lives. We are an extremely close family and this rocked our worlds. Mom and dad obviously took Mike’s death incredibly hard, and I believe they were never quite the same after that terrible day.
Both dad and mom loved the outdoors and kept active with numerous activities — camping, backyard softball, lawn darts and swimming. Mom suffered from osteoporosis, which slowed her down in later years, but Dad continued his daily walks and bike rides for many years. They lived close to the cemetery where my brother was buried and dad would go to visit his grave nearly every day. At times, he would ride his bike eight miles to our house and we’d find him out on our back deck reading our paper early on a Saturday morning!
The day our lives changed
Between 2005 and 2007, other issues began to crop up with Dad — for instance, not recognizing his grandson Brett (my adult son) when he came to visit on his lunch break. There were other incidents of forgetfulness and many stories that mom would tell us about him getting confused with the day and time. She struggled to keep him in bed at night because he was determined to go take his walk even though it was 2 a.m.
Our lives changed forever on a very hot August day in 2007. We got a call from mom around 8 a.m saying that Dad had gone on a walk and she felt he had been gone for a long time. It was hard to get her to pin down the exact amount of time that he had been gone, but we could tell that she was getting worried. Immediately my sisters and I, our husbands and many family members and friends began to search to see if we could find dad.
We retraced all of his favorite walking and biking routes, but to no avail. By the time lunch rolled around, we were getting very nervous that something horrible had happened to him and he had no way of contacting us. The temperature was over 90° already, and it was way too hot to be out. By 6 p.m., Dad’s picture and story were on all of the local news channels as a “Silver Alert.” Finally at 8:30 p.m., we were contacted by the sheriff’s office, saying that dad had been found in the backyard of a home 17 miles away! He was found by the homeowners out on their patio petting their dog.
When we came to get him, it was obvious how hard the day had been for him. He was very disheveled and confused, and returned our soft scolding and concerned comments with anger, saying that he could walk “wherever and whenever” he wanted! Later that week, we connected with the local sheriff’s office, who had a GPS tracker program in the form of a bracelet that Dad would wear. This gave us some peace for a little while.
Mom is acting different
Soon, we were contacted by mom and dad’s neighbors about some interesting “off hours” behaviors by our parents — for example, walking to the store at dusk, showing up at their favorite sandwich shop at 6:30 a.m. to get lunch, going to church on a Tuesday night at 9 p.m. and not understanding why no one was there for worship. We feared that Mom must also be suffering from some type of dementia. All of those years we were so focused on dad that we didn’t notice some of the signs of her illness. We came to find out, after getting in-home care, that mom’s dementia was a lot worse than we had imagined.
By this time, dad had been officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and mom would eventually receive a diagnosis of vascular dementia. When we realized that in-home care wasn’t enough, we moved them into an assisted living facility specializing in memory care. Dad continued through all of the stages of Alzheimer’s. Finally, Mom got to a point that she didn’t recognize him anymore and we had to get them separate apartments at the facility.
This was one of the most difficult parts of this journey for my sisters and me: to watch our parents become so ravaged by this disease that they no longer knew us, each other or their 58 years together. Dad was always very friendly and loving during his illness, even when he became non-verbal. Mom was more combative, afraid and paranoid. But, even during some of these difficult years, we were blessed to watch them both have a few rare moments of clarity with each other and sometimes with others.
Why I walk
Dad passed in February of 2011, and mom had an entire week of complete clarity. As we sat at dad’s bedside, we sang all of the old songs he loved and told all of his favorite stories. Mom was right there to correct us if we had it wrong! It was an amazing gift that God gave her (and us) to have her lucid during the time of his death up to his funeral a week later. I will never forget that time. After we buried dad, mom declined very quickly. We said goodbye to her a short four months later in June of 2011.
Our path with Alzheimer’s and dementia-related disease has taught us so much — about ourselves, the human condition and the fragility of the brain and our bodies. There were many times I went to the Alzheimer’s Association website and the internet, searching for answers and hoping for a cure. That is why we walk in the Yakima Valley Walk to End Alzheimer’s. We walk so that other children and family members don’t have to watch their loved ones slip away into the arms of this dreadful disease. We know that with our continued support of this wonderful organization that there will be a cure. There will be that first survivor.
Held annually in more than 600 communities nationwide, the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s® is the world’s largest fundraiser for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. This inspiring event calls on participants of all ages and abilities to join the fight against the disease. Find a Walk near you at alzwa.org/walk.