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NCIS and Alzheimer’s Disease

My favorite TV show by far is NCIS. (For those of you surprised by this, I admit to liking Glenn Beck a lot, but not as much as NCIS.) I didn’t start watching NCIS until the 6th season. I started by watching the older shows on a USA Network NCIS marathon on a vacation and was hooked immediately. NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the show solves crimes related to the Navy or Marines.

This week’s episode featured Bob Newhart as a retired NCIS Medical Examiner. His character suffers from Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and he made a visit to his old NCIS office in Washington, DC. While there he became confused. Once the staff solved this week’s crime, they helped Bob Newhart remember his time at NCIS by showing him a video of the people he helped during his career.

Since my dad has AD, the episode hit very close to home. Recently I put together a video for of our 2010 Thanksgiving dinner. I made sure to take a short clip of each of my children, each of their spouses, and each of their children. I edited the whole thing down to 20 minutes and added labels for each person. Like the NCIS episode, I thought I could help my dad remember and get to know his children and grandchildren. Unlike the NCIS episode, when I showed my dad the video, he couldn’t concentrate on it enough to watch it. A little too much of him had already slipped away.

His AD started with what seemed like normal senior forgetfulness. We realized something was wrong, when he would ask the same question more than once or make the same statement more than once. At first he would remember that he had already asked that question. Once he was diagnosed with AD, he knew enough to be depressed and frustrated.

We try to visit my folks every two or three months. Living with him everyday, my stepmom doesn’t notice the changes as much as we do. We notice with each visit that he has lost interest is something he used to like and has lost a skill he used to have.

In the early stage of AD he still liked the news and sports. Slowly he has lost interest in both. He would try to follow and participate in conversations. Now he mostly listens. He still knows his wife, his dog, his children, and his brothers and sisters, but he can’t remember much about them. He is always surprised to learn we have six children and that they are all married with children. Lately he has been discouraged with me when he rediscovers that I don’t have a job.

From what little we knew about AD, we expected him to lose things, to wander around looking for things, and to become confused at times. This seems to happen to all of us at one time or another. What I didn’t understand or expect was that so many other things would be erased from his memory.

We notice especially how he loses skills one by one. Throughout his life he could fix anything and could do just about anything with wood, glass, or electronics. On one visit we noticed he stopped fixing things. For example, a door latch needed oil, but he couldn’t remember to do it or how to do it. On another visit we saw that he couldn’t remember how to work the thermostat. This last visit he had forgotten how to shave. He can still read, but he doesn’t, because he can’t hold on to the context. Now when he looks at a tool, he can’t remember why or how he would use it.

I finally bought a couple of AD books so I would know what to expect. It’s not good. Far from just losing short-term memory or becoming confused more often, AD erases everything. In the end a person has no skills at all, and may even lose the ability to talk and and to walk.

It would be so nice if life were like a TV show and a short video would bring everything back to mind. It is sad, but not every problem can be solved in 42 minutes. Pete