Guest Blog Post: Redefining Alzheimer’s

On behalf of National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregivers Month, Marilynn Garzione will appear as a regular guest blogger for the month of November. She will share her thoughts, feelings, and vast personal experience with Alzheimer’s Disease. Marilynn Garzione teaches at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York and is the author of Released to the Angels: Discovering the Hidden Gifts of Alzheimer’s. Visit her on her website:

When I was a little girl, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s.  In those days the name didn’t exist.  In fact, it wasn’t recognized as a disease.  When we talked about her condition, Mom would simply say that she was old, that she had “hardening of the arteries.”  That she was senile.

From the point of view of a child, “senile” was a scary thing.  It was something that wasn’t defined, only observed.  And so, in my own way I began to define it.  It came to mean that my grandmother, who had always been a stern woman, didn’t want to be in my presence.  She wanted to be alone.

She lived with my aunt for many years, and then it was my Mom’s turn to care for her.  Her entry into our home marked the beginning of awareness, on my part, that this was an affliction rather than a consequence of age.  I came to see her as a gentle being—quiet, reserved, with a dignity she tried in her own way to maintain.  She would sit for hours by the window and over and over wipe “crumbs” from her lap.  When I tried to communicate with her, she would respond with quiet murmurings but failed to bridge the gap of human interaction.

As I was growing in maturity, so too was my definition.  I remember once, a priest came to our home to administer the Holy Sacrament.  The priest retreated into the room with her and when he emerged later I glanced at my grandmother.  He had given her a rosary which she had promptly placed on top of her head.  I smiled, but now with an affection that bridged the gap between us.  I wanted to embrace her frailty and somehow assure her that she was not alone, that she was with family.  That she was loved.

Alzheimer’s still carries with it a misconception that denies its true nature.  It is not a natural consequence.  It is a disease.  It does not belong solely to the elderly but can attack life in the midst of a career.  And yet in our society we still cling to the idea that this is a natural part of old age, that it is something we must accept.  But it is not natural, and it certainly is not acceptable.  And when we do nothing to change our perspective, this “acceptable factor” prevents us from taking action against it.

There are diseases of our children that we must address.  There are diseases of our elderly that we must address as well.  Both lives are important.  There is no distinction between the importance of life.

Alzheimer’s is a disease.  It attacks life.  Our loved ones—young and old—deserve our efforts to help them live.

Marilynn is the author of Released to the Angels: Discovering the Hidden Gifts of Alzheimer’s

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-Jaime Venditti, 11/9/12