The Last of His Mind: A Year in The Shadow of Alzheimer’s
With this disaster in Haiti there must be elderly Alzheimer’s patients in Port-au-Prince and other towns who somehow survived the earthquake that killed their caregivers. If they haven’t died already, they could be wandering around not knowing who they are, not remembering where they live, or how to eat, or where to lie down at night to sleep. Some would be as helpless as infants—only they don’t look like infants. In a country where the most able-bodied are having a hard time getting food and water and medical care, those with dementia must be at extreme risk.
We don’t hear much about dementia in third-world countries. The U.S. has about five million Alzheimer’s patients now, with 30 million in the rest of the world. We have more than our share percentage-wise, in part because we have better reporting of medical statistics, and in part because we live longer. Long life is now that double-edged sword: the longer we live, the more likely our brains are apt to go before our bodies. Our education about Alzheimer’s is better. We don’t call it “senility,” as we once did, and we don’t call it “tired brain,” as they do in India. There’s a near-constant outcry about the need for better medications in the U.S., for better patient care, for more help for caregivers as they look after the afflicted at home. But what did Alzheimer’s care look like in Haiti a month ago? There couldn’t have been much help from the state—and today there must be none. Caring for my father as Alzheimer’s took him down has set up a kind of filter for me—rather like the years I spent raising my son. I became a father, I joined the vast community of parents, and now I have joined the community of those who have looked after the elderly and those with dementia. In the case of Haiti, my mind jumps to those who are lost in the midst of chaos, who could make little sense of anything even if they were still ambulatory. Infants and those in the deep reaches of Alzheimer’s are especially vulnerable populations—and on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the latter must be almost invisible.