PROBLEM: Coping with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis
Openly communicate the news with others. There is a certain stigma that goes along with Alzheimer’s – people aren’t sure what to say or how to act around you… and so they unfortunately avoid you altogether in order to avoid uncomfortable situations. We have found that by openly sharing the diagnosis with others (family, colleagues, neighbors, country club members, mailman) and taking time to explain the disease, people are much more comfortable around us. It keeps the lines of communication open vs. the alternative of not knowing what to say and so therefore never saying anything at all.
Use humor to break the tension. Alzheimer’s is a very serious topic, but our family was determined not to allow it to make our life somber 24/7. Our family naturally uses humor as a coping mechanism anyway, and so we used humor as a tool to break the iced during stressful times, albeit expressing how helpless we felt, how sad we were, or how much this truly sucks. Making jokes about it doesn’t automatically mean you’re not taking the diagnosis or the situation seriously; it simply means you’re trying to swallow this large sour pill with a smile on your face—which can have contagious magical powers, replacing the frowns around you with smiles as well. Humor and laughing can benefit everyone—as long as they’re open to the possibility that laughing doesn’t equate insensitivity. In our family, we always welcome a good laugh through our tears in order to help numb the sting.
Turn the crisis into an opportunity. Our family decided to use our Alzheimer’s experience as a way to educate others about this harrowing disease, to use our fortunate family dynamics to demonstrate how love can help conquer fear and how there is power in numbers. My dad, my mom, my brothers, myself… we could have all locked ourselves in separate rooms (physically and/or proverbially) and claimed pure denial. But there is no power in that. We are a lucky family blessed with loving, functional relationships (for the most part-LOL). We cling to one another for support, for understanding, for sanity, for dear life. We use each other as a sounding board. No one goes through this process the same way or on the same timeline, and so there is a lot of give and take to be had if you’re open to it. We prefer to have death bring us closer together instead of letting it rip us apart.
Openly Discussing the Diagnosis – VIDEO TRANSCRIPTION
Fran: I think Frank and I know each other better than a lot of other couples. We met in high school when I was 14, started dating when I was 16, married when I was 19 and have been married for 44 years. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that a day will come when the Frank I have known practically all of my life will change into someone I hardly recognize. Worse yet will be the day when he won’t recognize me. Our rollercoaster ride began when Frank was diagnosed in April of 2007 with early-stage Alzheimer’s the day before we left on our dream trip, 2 weeks in Greece.
Frank: That night, we called our children, brothers, sisters, and closest friends – and one by one, we would tell them the news. Naturally, they all were very sad, but you know what? Most of them were not surprised. We made a decision from the very beginning, not to hide from the diagnosis – not to keep it a secret – although clearly we’ve never told our story to as many people as we’re doing today. (laugh)
Fran: He tries to stay upbeat instead of letting Alzheimer’s beat him down. He’ll tell people, “Yeah, Fran has a sore back so I help her out. I lift the heavy things, do the gardening and the grocery shopping. She tells me what day of the week it is.” Together, with one good body and one good mind, we make one heck of a partnership!
Frank: I’m thankful that Fran and I can share our story with you. And we, along with all those affected by this disease, are tremendously grateful that there are wonderful people like you who help to ensure that no one with Alzheimer’s disease walks alone. Thank you.