Alzheimer’s Disease: The Great Thief
Edwin T. Scott Jr.
Clyde Alan Vick was born October 30, 1914. He fought in World War II, serving as a Military Police soldier in the 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division; the “bloody buckets.” He earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Bronze Star, and a Presidential Unit Citation for participation in the battle of the Ardennes during the Rhineland Campaign in France. PFC (Private First Class) Vick also participated in the liberation of Paris and escorted German POW’s from the front back to prison ships waiting in the Mediterranean. I know this because I relived it with him in 1990 late one night after my grandmother Mary Lillian Vick had passed away.
Clyde was my grandfather and he had been diagnosed a couple of years earlier with Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type, with early onset. The disease had set in slowly and progressively robbed him of his faculties. His memories became blurred, time and memories become distorted, and familiar places became strange new places from which there was no direction home. Perhaps the only blessing to come from his demise was that he was spared the family turmoil and infighting between his children over their mother’s estate and later his, the loss of a son and two daughters, and the turmoil of the next century. Clyde had fought his war, sent his sons off to theirs, and now he faced a battle he could not win.
Alzheimer’s Disease is progressive and always fatal. There is no known single cause of the disease, but multiple causes are suspected. It is considered the most common form of Dementia and has two subsets…early onset and late onset. The deciding factor for which subset is diagnosed is whether symptoms where recognized before or after age 65 in the patient. . The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age, with a doubling of risk every five years after age 65. It appears to be more prevalent in women than in men and is affects individuals in all socio-economic groups. There appears to be a strong correlation between the disease and overall health. Some studies indicated that Alzheimer’s may be related to Diabetes and a study at the Brown University Medical School and Rhode Island Hospital, demonstrated a correlation between Alzheimer’s and reduced levels of insulin in the brain.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are seven stages of the disorder that range from:
Stage 1: No impairment.
Stage 2: Very mild decline.
Stage 3: Mild decline.
Stage 4: Moderate decline (mild or early stage).
Stage 5: Moderately severe decline (moderate or mid-stage).
Stage 6: Severe decline (moderately severe or mid stage).
Stage 7:Very severe decline (severe or late stage).
Clyde began to experience symptoms at about 62 years of age, indicating early onset. Initially the only symptoms were his failure to remember minor things, misplacing keys to his truck, loosing his checkbook, etc. All of which, while being rather annoying, can easily be explained by normal aging effects on memory. Unfortunately, for Clyde, these were warning signs and a marker of progression from Stage1 to Stage 2 Alzheimer’s. Clyde probably suffered this condition for several years before even he recognized it as anything other than an annoyance.
I can still remember the day that Clyde had been missing for several hours and the family had searched for him without success. It was about 1986 and Clyde was now descending further into the disorder as he found himself unable to make a simple trip across town to the grocery store without forgetting why he was there and where he was going to after that. He couldn’t even remember how to get home. He had slipped from Stage 2 to Stage 5 and nobody seemed to
notice the decline. In Stage 5 a person has moderately severe decline in cognitive functions that require him or her to get assistance with daily living activities such as dressing oneself, going to the store or paying bills. They often will not remember where they are or what they were doing there.
My grandmother had divorced Clyde in 1975 shortly after being diagnosed with emphysema and she chose to live apart from him as she pursued medical care and social security disability for herself. They still loved one another, they just couldn’t live together and doing so would hurt her ability to obtain assistance with her conditions. Ten years later she was in no condition to care for him or make decisions regarding his medical care so these responsibilities fell to their children. It was at this stage in Clyde’s decline that they stepped in and took him to a doctor at the Veteran’s Hospital who diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s.
Clyde’s disease was progressing rapidly as he became confused about what was going on around him. He had no concept that his children were now in their mid to late thirties and were squabbling over who should make decisions about him. He had lost the years of separation from my grandmother and cried often about missing her. When she came around, he believed they were still married and often treated her as he had during their marriage. Mary would dutifully cook and help him dress some mornings, all the while she was declining with her illness as well.
On May 14, 1990, Mary died from complications of her emphysema, and Clyde was devastated and confused. His middle son and second oldest daughter and temporarily been awarded custody over him and they broke the news of their mother’s death to him as best they could. Although Clyde could not legally make decisions for himself, he wanted to take responsibility for Mary’s funeral and disposition of her estate. Fortunately, Clyde and Mary had drawn up a will many years before which directed these things, even though Clyde was now unable to do so himself. Clyde was not allowed to attend the funeral by the guardian children who thought it would deepen his depression and worsen the symptoms, which now were becoming unmanageable as he slipped into Stage 6.
The night before my grandmother’s funeral I set up with him talking about his life. Here was the man who had helped to raise me. I am literally alive because of him and he helped insure my survival as an infant by staying up late at night and feeding me beer with my baby food so that my body would not metabolize the food and it would help me store fat. I had been born underweight and full term with little hope for survival. The “country doctor” who delivered me recommended the diet, and Clyde who was descended from “old country” Dutch immigrants believed whole heartedly in old fashioned remedies. Now he was the infant and I was the one feeding him an unconventional diet of family bonding to help him survive.
For Clyde it was some obscure day in 1944 and he was in France fighting the Germans. He had been ordered to make his way through the fight to the front and escort some prisoners back to waiting prison ships in the Mediterranean. He told me, a fellow GI (in his delusion):
Last evening a GI had been shot and died gurgling on his own blood and crying. Clyde was angry, beyond angry he was mad. He [sic]couldn’t wait to send some more Germans to their maker and he would certainly ‘beat the shit’ out of some of them Krauts on the way back to the ship. He had shot a couple of them this morning and it took his mind of the bitter cold rain. He hated France. Death and destruction everywhere. Cities all bombed out. Terrible weather. Terrible. The girls were good though. If you could trust them. They liked to screw but half of them were doing the Germans while they were here. Oh well, a girls a girl, right?
“Yup, Vick, it is. A man can’t be blamed for wanting some in the middle of a big old war. Besides better us than them freaking Germans doin’ them.” I agreed. I only wished that I had been older and knew what I know now about Clyde and what a valuable source of WWII history he was. I would have written an anthology of his experiences and asked him more serious questions about the war.
About two years later, I went to check in on Clyde with my wife Deanna. Clyde was now bedridden and nearing the end. He was in Stage 7 and even more incoherent than earlier. Embarrassingly, he had jumped in his recollection to an earlier girlfriend and asked if she knew that I was messing around on her. Much to my chagrin, I had to explain his condition to my jealous wife. Clyde’s memory shifted so rapidly from past to present, place to place, that he wasn’t fully aware of his surroundings at all. I don’t know if he even knew that he was dying. I know that he cried a lot and asked where Mary was. He wanted to know where the kids (their now grown children) were.
In the end, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. The only treatments involve relief of some symptoms and discomfort using drugs that temporarily support the stability of an individual’s memory and thinking skills in early stages of the disease. One of the keys to treatment of symptoms is the early diagnosis of the disease. Clyde’s was nearly too late for any relief at all. There are some promising new studies being done on gene therapy and stem cell research that may open new avenues of treatment for Despite the controversy of such research, former first lady Nancy Reagan has testified before congress about the need for stem cell research as a means of treatment of Dementia, which robbed her husband, former US President Ronald Reagan of his faculties and ultimately lead to his death. Both Reagan and my grandfather were in the company of other famous people who suffered and eventually died or will die from the disease, including Rita Hayworth, Charlton Heston, and David Hyde Pierce.
Like a thief in the night, Alzheimer’s disease snuck into my grandfather’s life and robbed him of his most precious moments. He died on November 23, 1993, three days before Thanksgiving and he was buried the day after. He was 79 years old. His coffin had a folded
American flag symbolizing his veteran’s status placed in it and for the first time in nearly ten years the whole family gathered and gave thanks for his legacy, the family feud now entered a stable treatise. He had been a great man humbled by the complex workings of nature upon the mind.