By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Can you fight the dreadful Alzheimer’s disease? My mind has been wrestling with that question lately.
If you have someone in your family who has Alzheimer’s like I do, please take note: Alzheimer’s is hereditary. You are more likely to develop the disease if you have a parent, sibling, or child with it.
In recent years, modern medicine can eliminate cancer, and AIDS to some extent. Look at Magic Johnson who has survived HIV for more than two decades. He is still alive and kicking. However, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s.
Don’t think that you are okay just because no one in your family has the disease. Presently, over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. That number will triple by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Even if you are lucky enough to avoid it, you could be a caretaker for a loved one in the future.
Alzheimer’s in my family
Our family was unprepared and shocked when the doctor diagnosed our mother’s Alzheimer’s several years ago. Perhaps, the disease had struck her much earlier. But we didn’t have the knowledge to recognize her symptoms.
There is a difference between aging and Alzheimer’s. When someone forgets their keys and friends’ names, it can be a part of the aging process. But if someone were unable to recognize loved ones and confuse relationships with family members like my mom, it’s a bad sign. For instance, my mom would ask me, “Who is that handsome young man over there?” Her ability to notice beautiful things and people still amazes me.
“Your grandson,” I answered.
“Who is the father of that man (actually her own son and my brother)?” she asked.
In another instance, she asked several times in one day, “Who is the man (my husband and her son-in-law) with you?”
It pained me to watch my mother’s deterioration every time I visited her in Hong Kong. My mother’s condition made us think that my grandmother possibly had the same disease.
My grandmother’s story was tragic. None of our family members had even heard of Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s. Grandma’s symptoms, such as forgetfulness, extreme anger, and aggressiveness, made it impossible for my uncle’s family to live with her, so they sent her to a nursing home.
Grandma remembered me when I visited her in Taiwan in 1987. What scared me was that she would tell me weird things like the Monkey King God (a Chinese legendary god) told her the night before that I would show up.
At 83, grandma disappeared — walking out of the nursing home by herself. Her nursing home had no locked doors. My uncle never found her. I have a feeling my uncle didn’t try hard to find his own mother.
He never even filed a police report.
Some risk factors for Alzheimer’s patients has to do with family history, genetics and age (especially after 85). So did my mother inherit her mother’s destructive gene? Do I carry the same “monster”?
Can you prepare for Alzheimer’s?
I don’t want to know if the “monster” is in me. I refuse to have my brain scanned. Assuming my body contains that terrible DNA, is there anything I can do?
Yes, I can.
I believe that environment wins over nature. I hate to admit that my mother has to take responsibility of her own predicament. I love her dearly, but I would not emulate her lifestyle one bit. That’s the reason I left my family for America, in search of meaningful role models, values, and a different lifestyle.
Don’t get me wrong. My mom is a decent person. But the mistakes she made have contributed to the development of her Alzheimer’s. Since I was a child, alcohol was my mother’s ally. The effects of liquor on the brain can result in a loss of neurons. Alcohol can also cause problems with memory and muscle coordination.
My stepfather influenced her to enjoy brandy as he was a hard drinker, too. Fortunately, I never enjoyed drinking, even though my step dad chided me frequently.
The word retirement has a negative connotation to me. At 73, my mother told me, “I quit aerobics classes. It’s time to retire.” I wish I knew then about the benefits of physical activity. I wish I had objected! She described exercise as a chore, and I was so ignorant then, and agreed that she deserved to “retire” from it.
Recent research has shown that exercise is the key to our wellbeing, no matter how old. I guess my mother might have experienced some back and foot pain at the time, and therefore, decided to stop exercising completely. We should never “retire” from exercising. It is one of the best devices to slow down aging. Neurologist Dr. Laura Boyd said studies have found that stroke patients might fail to do all the physical activities taught by a therapist. But even with the intent and attempts to do so, can change the brain.
My mom’s retirement from exercising probably weakened her feet, as well as her brain. We decided to hire a full-time maid for her. The maid would give her the wheelchair every time my mom complained about pain, instead of encouraging her to walk.
Examining my mom’s life and behavior, I learned six valuable lessons.
1. What does retirement mean?
According to FreeDictionary.com, retirement means the withdrawal from one’s occupation or position, especially upon reaching a certain age; the age at which one withdraws from work or activity. The word “withdrawal” implies you do nothing.
It might relieve someone from a stressful job, and an opportunity to change their lifestyle. Retirement is not a synonym for laziness. It never stipulates someone should stop engaging in the community or seeking meaningful ventures. Some of my friends died just a few years into retirement — they were too bored, got sick, and found no motivation to live.
Retirement should mean adapting to the next stage of life or an exciting journey.
We should never, ever retire from life-long learning, giving back, exercising, and self-improvement.
2. Have a purpose
Sadly, mom has no purpose or passion — she just sleeps, shops, and eats.
There’s an old Chinese saying, “The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains.” The lesson is about perseverance and willpower. It inspires me that we need to have a purpose every day, even when we get old.
What motivates us to get up in the morning? What gives us joy? Perhaps the hope of accomplishing something, the act of doing something constructive, participation of group activities, and the realization that we can still contribute to society.
3. Don’t let others spoil you
Getting older comes with a lot of privileges. We all like to help and do things for seniors. We often give excuses for them, allowing them in harmful indulgences such as overeating, drinking, and gambling.
When I go out with mom in Hong Kong, she wants a taxi immediately, even though she is capable of walking to the subway terminal. I would never deny her because I didn’t want to her to think I was mean.
My excuse is, she’s old and I respect her wishes. But wouldn’t it be good for her to walk a little?
When I get on a bus, people automatically offer me a seat. “No, thank you,” I tell them, it’s just a short ride. Standing up is good for me, as I sit down and work on a computer constantly.
It’s my goal to be independent as long as I can. My husband offers to drive me to places, but I still like to take the wheel. It gives you a sense of independence and satisfaction when you can do things for yourself and others.
It’s always nice to have some responsibilities at home. It could be walking your dog, feeding your pet, trimming plants, making a salad, or volunteering. I used to be like my mom — not interested in fixing things at home. Now, I like to repair little things.
4. Don’t stop reading
A few years ago, my mom stopped reading her daily newspapers, even though she used to be an avid reader. She has completely lost interest in the outside world. As I wrote in my past blogs, connecting globally and locally through news is essential to stimulating our brain and develop interesting views and knowledge for issues. My mom lost her sense of empathy and caring a long time ago. I didn’t realize that was the beginning of her Alzheimer’s. Without kindness and caring, we cannot experience beautiful emotions, such as gratitude, joy, fun, energy. and excitement.
5. Be careful with alcohol
If you are a moderate drinker, you need not be concerned. But if you are a heavy one, remember, alcohol does affect your brain. And stay away from drugs.
My mom quit drinking a few years ago after four decades. A newspaper article depicted how alcohol induces frequent urination at night. Since quitting, she doesn’t need to get up at night as much to go to the bathroom.
6. Eat healthy
My mom’s favorite food is deep-fried prawns. She loves the dish because she was born and raised in Japan. Tempura (deep-fried) prawns taste good, but it’s unhealthy.
I asked her maid why she constantly fed my mom those greasy prawns. She said my mom would refuse to eat if she couldn’t find stuff she enjoyed.
Those bad fats are damaging not only to the brain, but your heart and arteries.
My mom’s examples taught me how not to live. I have always been grateful that she let me come to America to choose the life I envisioned.
I have created a fascinating life, and I have no regrets. What I have been able to accomplish in my career has far exceeded my expectations. Dealing with challenges like Alzheimer’s doesn’t really frighten me at all. It actually helps me to thrive to be a better human being, and enjoy life fully.
Dear God, let me be The Old Foolish Woman who will continuously move mountains with conviction, commitment, and purpose.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.