Lost in thought

2013-11-22 11:00

When does normal behaviour become abnormal? Author Wilna Adriaanse remembers her father-in-law’s battle with Alzheimer’s, the disease that robs sufferers of their memory. 

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but it’s almost impossible to determine where this tale starts, because its name wasn’t Alzheimer’s disease then.

For us, it began with a beloved father and grandfather who, one day, was just not himself anymore.

Later, when we retraced the steps and could string the incidents together like beads, we realised it wasn’t something that happened suddenly.

There were signs. Unfortunately, they were so subtle that no one talked about them in the beginning. And once we did start discussing his behaviour, it was in whispers.

‘He’s not reading his newspapers anymore.’

‘He’s quieter in company.’

But isn’t that just a normal sign of old age? Don’t you become more of a listener and less of a talker?

Then there were his uncharacteristic outbursts of rage. We wanted to blame low blood sugar, high blood pressure, the weather, the news.

His library remained closed. New books lay on shelves, unread. And this was a man who’d made his living from media.

There was restless wandering, as if he didn’t feel at home anywhere anymore; he unpacked photographs, scribbled notes to himself, repeated stories verbatim. But how do you deny someone his memories?

Maybe his increasing distrust of everyone around him should have sent out warning signals. Or the once-clean clothes that started getting dirtier. Or perhaps the fact that he suddenly became a bad driver and even got lost on roads he knew well.

As in every story, this one had its turning point. The day he said that he wanted to go to the doctor, because he wasn’t remembering things properly, was a clear red light. Our father never usually went to the doctor.

What we didn’t realise, was that the diagnosis would become just one more bead on the string.

Initially, you’re almost relieved, because the whispers now have a name. We could hunker down with him and chart the course ahead together.

But how do you plan a route through a maze behind a stranger? A maze with many dead ends and blind corners?

The well-travelled man who could always find his way on strange continents had lost his compass.

He could still take us through London, Paris, Budapest and New York in his mind’s eye, but the environment around him had shifted.

We’d lie awake at night, praying in the darkness that he would have a peaceful night.

We researched, consulted experts, got angry, got tired and then tried again, because giving up wasn’t an option.

No one is spared. Family, friends, acquaintances. Everyone is pulled onto this path.

The man with the once full and busy life started telling tales. Far-fetched untruths. We wanted to hold him and protect him against himself and a cruel world, because he had been a proud man all his life.

We got both advice and criticism. When you face something like this, you question yourself, and are constantly scared and sad.

There are, however, only so many prayers you can say in the night and so many times you can hope he won’t hurt himself. One day the most difficult decision is unavoidable.

We went to the care facility and made up his bed with sheets from home, and Mom’s favourite mohair blanket.

We put his pen and notebook in the drawer – he always loved writing. We placed photos on the bedside table of him as a child, husband, father, grandfather and friend.

The man with the mayoral chain around his neck. The man who shook hands with princes and presidents. Like crumbs that could lead him back.

The end?

He passed away on 4 February 2013 from cancer. Just over a year after the diagnosis. When we look at the roads others have taken, he was probably spared a lot.

Yet still you find yourself walking through the maze, looking for the man with the strong compass. The one you miss.

Rest quietly, Dad.

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What is Alzheimer’s disease?

It is an irreversible condition of the brain that slowly destroys thinking ability. The links between the nerve cells weaken over time and the brain shrinks. Eventually, the most basic tasks become impossible.

The disease is present about a decade or more before symptoms are visible. What causes Alzheimer’s is still not known, but it seems to be a complex combination of genetic factors, environment and lifestyle.

What is dementia?

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning – to think, remember and reason – as well as abilities you need to get by on a day-to-day basis. Many conditions cause dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. But Alzheimer’s is the main cause of dementia in older people.


Light: Getting lost, struggling when dealing with money and bills, repeating questions, poor judgment, losing things, mood and personality changes.

Mild: More memory loss, problems recognising family and friends, struggling to complete tasks, delusions and paranoia.

Advanced: Can’t communicate, weight loss, moaning, struggling to swallow, sleeping more, loss of bodily functions.


There is no cure, so the aim is to try to control the symptoms.

Practical advice

• Don’t argue with the person; it doesn’t help and they cannot reason properly with you.

• Don’t take their behaviour personally. If something is upsetting the person, remove him or her from the situation.

• Never tease or punish someone with Alzheimer’s.

A daughter's story 

I had never really given Alzheimer’s any consideration until 2010. Nobody had been diagnosed in my family or in my community so I didn’t think it could be a reality until it affected me directly. Three months after my mom’s 74th birthday,

I started noticing something was wrong. She began forgetting names. We joked about it at first. But when my younger sister commented on how untidy my mother’s usually spotless house was, we knew there was a problem.

An unemployed relative moved in with her – and that’s when we realised Mom was forgetting to close taps and switch off lights. She even got lost coming back from the same church she had attended most of her adult life.

I confided in a colleague and she suggested it might be Alzheimer’s. It was. It is. These days my mother lives with my family and me.

She barely recognises us. Her actions are unpredictable and the whole family has to help attend to her needs. This disease is heartbreaking because it takes away everything you thought you knew about your parent. The mother I have always known is no longer there.

We haven’t told a lot of people about my mother’s condition because we want to give her the respect she earned throughout her life. I don’t know where this road will lead but I do know one thing: Alzheimer’s took my mother away. – Mpho Mashego, HR director, Durban

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