My grandmother, Edna Franz, died last week. She was 96 years old.
When my Dad called me shortly after 7 a.m. last Thursday, the news of my grandmother’s death didn’t come as a shock. I didn’t cry and I wasn’t overcome with emotion, perhaps because in some ways she was already gone to me. Or at least the person I grew up with was already gone. That’s because my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was in college.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. Over time it robs people of their memory, their ability to communicate, and their ability to respond to the world around them. At this time, there is no cure for the disease.
In October 2015, I went back east to spend a few days with my grandparents in New Jersey. My grandfather cornered me for most of the weekend, excited to have a new person to share stories about his time skiing in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II or, his favorite topic, genealogy. Even at the advanced age of 90, he could still talk your ear off and recall every detail to every story, right down to what he and his then new wife packed for a picnic lunch on their honeymoon back in 1950.
The moments shared with my grandmother that weekend were much quieter. Most of the time, she just sat in her chair in the living room and stared off into eternity. Gone was the woman who loved to go square dancing with her husband of six decades. Gone was the woman who loved to take family photos at the most inopportune time, like at the end of a visit when we trying to fanatically pack the car because my Dad didn’t want to get stuck in traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Gone was the woman who loved to cook and bake and catalog hundreds of recipes, including one inconceivable dish that called for combining mayonnaise and jello. Gone was the woman who loved to try to teach her young grandson how to play the piano, even if he was far more interested in sneaking downstairs to play with grandpa’s model railroad.
Unfortunately, I’ve become all too familiar with Alzheimer’s in recent years. My other grandmother, JoAnne, was diagnosed with the disease a few years after Edna, not long after she had wandered out of the house and across a busy highway. But my family is not unique.
An estimated 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to climb to 14 million by 2050. Today, it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. The disease takes a toll on family members too. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 16.1 million Americans provide billions of hours of unpaid care for people with the disease annually. Alzheimer’s is also a huge burden on the healthcare system, costing more than a quarter of a trillion dollars annually and those costs will only rise in the coming years.
Toward the end of that visit a few years ago — after my grandfather had finally tired himself out from telling stories — I sat outside with my grandmother in the front lawn, watching the world go by on a warm fall afternoon. I held her hand as we sat in the same old vinyl lawn chairs that have been there since I was a kid. After awhile, she perked up, looked at me and smiled. She said something about how it was nice to see friends. I explained to her that I was her grandson, that I had come to visit her and that I loved her. She smiled, told me to have a safe trip home and visit again soon. And then she was gone. She turned away and stared in to eternity again.
For more information and to learn how you can support research to find a cure for Alzheimer’s visit www.alz.org.