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Alzheimer’s and the Powerful World of Memory

An old dog and an upcoming book inspire thoughts on the disease, family and who we are.

Alzheimer's and the power of memory
Credit: Katye Martens Brier

I found myself thinking about Buddy today. Because of a new book I’m just starting work on.

Gracie and I met Buddy early last spring walking the Housatonic Flats, an easy loop trail that runs along the Housatonic River here in western Massachusetts. The bigger Berkshire mountain trails were still mainly impassable this early in the season. Gracie could handle them, but I’d be slip sliding away.

We ran into Buddy and his owner, both older gents, at the trailhead. Buddy was a straw-colored golden retriever mix with a white mask of age, a classic sugar face. His owner matched him with a thatch of snowy hair. There is nothing more dear on a dog than that sugar face. Nothing sweeter than an old dog.

Gracie was doing zoomies around Buddy, showing off as usual. Still zooming at five years old. Goldens never really grow up, the Peter Pans of the dog world. Buddy sat patiently, mouth agape, tongue drooping out, staring straight ahead. Bemused but a bit vacant. 

“Buddy’s got a little doggie dementia, age-related,” his owner offered.

Gracie came to a stop beside him and sat, as if she understood. “He forgets stuff and gets a little confused. I found him crying the other night because he couldn’t find his way upstairs. I keep all the lights on now.”

I gave Buddy a scratch on the neck. He leaned into me appreciatively. What’s the prognosis for canine dementia? I wondered. As if he knew what I was thinking, Buddy’s owner said, “I just want him to be happy as long as possible. He’s doing okay.” Buddy looked up at his owner then rose and started slowly back toward the parking area. 

“I guess he’s had enough.” 

I waved goodbye and followed Gracie down the trail towards the river. We do our best thinking out in the woods, Gracie and me. Thanks to Buddy, that day I couldn’t help but think about Alzheimer’s and all of the families who suffer from this terrible disease, a thief that steals your mind one memory at a time.  

My family is one. I’ve written about my mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Watching the disease take its infernal course was like watching my mom slowly disappear before my eyes, as she forgot everything and everyone, even herself. The question that haunts me now is, will I too disappear? Alzheimer’s afflicted not only my mother but both her sisters and one of her three brothers (the other two didn’t live long enough to show symptoms). It started with her father, my grandfather, and there is talk it goes further back. Some of my older cousins are reportedly showing signs.   

The book I am writing is a sharing of my family’s experience caregiving for my mother, both the joys and the sorrows, the humor and the heartbreak, that so many of you have known, as well as my own medical exploration of my susceptibility to this disease. What can doctors tell me? Do I really want to know what might lie ahead? How will my faith play a role? My sobriety? I already detect chinks in my memory. Are they symptoms or just the expected vagaries of aging? Did we miss the early warning signs in my mother or just deny them?   

As the book progresses, I will be sharing more with you about the journey, and I would love to hear about your own experiences that I may include in the story. 

That day last spring I caught up to Gracie at the riverbank. She was staring out at the gray still water of the Housatonic, a few stray chunks of ice bobbing on the surface. I wondered what she was thinking or if she was just absorbing the moment, the seconds as they passed, as dogs do. Our memories are a nearly infinite constellation of moments that store up over a lifetime, a way to remember who we are…and whose we are. Wherever this journey takes me, I know I will not be alone.

Read more about Alzheimer’s and caregiving here. 

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