Alzheimer's takes no holidays

Families coping with disease are reminded of what they have lost

At Ralph White's Thanksgiving table, memories die in an instant.


They come as flashes of hope, when -- for a moment -- his wife, Yong Suk Kim, 68, remembers the faces of all four of her grandchildren.

They are snatched away as that puzzled look falls across her face, stealing a simple moment of recognition and pulling it back into a state of confusion.

"Sometimes I don't know who I am," Kim says to Ralph. "That kind of thing is scary."

"I know," Ralph says. "That's scary for anyone, dear."

To understand the pain a holiday meal around a table can bring, to know what it's like to smile with tears in your eyes, to change the subject so you don't break down and cry, there has to be an understanding of what was lost.

Before Alzheimer's disease, Thanksgiving was all on Kim's shoulders.

The turkey, the gravy, the decorations.

"The whole 10 yards," Ralph said.

It's the way she had been in all of the 46 years they've been married.

They met in Korea when he was a young soldier and she was a pretty girl who caught his eye as he passed in front of a beauty parlor.

They didn't talk much. Kim spoke only Korean, but he was a "flirty GI."

She learned English. He learned words such as yobo -- "darling."

Their lives together began when Kim came to the U.S., and they traveled as a military family, raised a daughter and retired in Grovetown in 1984.

It was always Kim who made decisions in the family. She was stubborn, with a hot temper, and Ralph learned it was best to smile and agree.

They went out at night and danced, drank a little and "had a good old time," Ralph said.

That began to change about 2005, when the family took a cruise to the Caribbean and things just weren't right.

Kim would see figures standing in their cabin when there was only Ralph lying beside her in bed.

"Hallucinations," Ralph said.

Ever since the doctor uttered the words "Alzheimer's disease" in 2007, Kim's mind has slowly traveled somewhere else.

They wake at 6 a.m. so Ralph can fix her breakfast of Pop-Tarts and coffee, which she eats staring blankly into space.

"It's really, really tough and frustrating," Ralph said. "You get mad and you get frustrated and you cry and you laugh. We've had our little cries. That's for sure."

Ralph walks his wife to the living room couch, where he pops in a cassette of Korean music and lets Kim lean back and escape into whatever clouds are clotting her mind.

He works outside. Cuts the grass. Has a beer.

When they have guests, Ralph dabs eyeliner and lipstick on Kim's face. He puts her socks on her and brushes her teeth.

He tries conversation.

"Do you remember when we were in Korea?" Ralph asks.

"We went to Korea?"

"We went twice."

"I don't remember."

"OK, yobo."

Holiday survival

Ralph hopes new memories can be made this Thanksgiving.

It might be the last chance for them.

The couple planned to fly to Annandale, Va., to spend what Ralph calls their "last holiday" with their daughter, Teresa, son-in-law and four grandchildren.

They will be gathered around the table, with a turkey that Kim did not prepare and decorations she did not put up.

Still, they will be together.

"We're going to, I guess, try to remember the good times and gloss out the bad times as usual," Ralph said. "We'll all be together as a family. That's the important thing."

For families dealing with Alzheimer's, the holidays are a time of bittersweet moments, said Kathy Tuckey, the program and services director for the Alzheimer's Association Augusta region.

"The holidays, for caregivers and the people with Alzheimer's, there's such a great opportunity for togetherness, for love ... but the holidays are also filled with stress and sadness," Tuckey said.

There is worry about how to keep a loved one calm when every noise and crowd can be reason for panic: how to put on a meal when the whole point of holidays seems to be lost somewhere in the past.

Now it's about making new memories, Tuckey said.

Learning to adapt

Thanksgiving this year will be all new for Dot Howell.

Holidays used to be huge productions for her family.

Thanksgivings were potlucks at a relative's house that lasted two, maybe three days.

Her husband, Mike, always the quiet one, would be somewhere in the crowd, chatting about fishing or family while Dot "barked orders," always the entertainer.

Mike, 60, had been a truck driver his whole life, hauling loads to the big cities in California, then staying closer to their home in Appling when their only son, Jason, was growing up.

Then one day, Alzheimer's disease followed him on the road.

It showed up as road rage in 2004, causing doctors to suggest taking Mike's livelihood and pride -- his driver's license.

As he falls deeper into the disease, he stares into his wife's eyes when she asks how he feels.

Dot showers him, dresses him, shaves him and settles him into his recliner, where he sits for eight hours a day, staring at Westerns.

"You look at your husband and see a child," Dot said. "In the back of your head, you know it's not him."

On Thanksgiving, Dot will give Mike his 19 pills for the day, remind him they are going to her sister's house and tell him it's OK to sleep in the bedroom while the family eats.

"You lower your expectations of the holidays and don't fret about it," she said. "If you drop your plate on the floor, so be it. If you don't want to eat, don't eat. That's our life now."



Getting help

Alzheimer's Association Augusta Region's workshops will help families deal with holiday stress and coping with the disease. Here are the events coming up:

TUESDAY: Family Caregiver Workshop at First United Methodist Church, 202 W. Broad St., Greensboro, Ga. 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. RSVP required. Call (706) 731-9060.

DEC. 14: Know the 10 Signs: Early Detection Matters and Caring for the Caregiver, MCG Alumni Center, 919 15th Street, Augusta, noon to 1 p.m.; RSVP required. Call (706) 731-9060.