Op-ed: When Alzheimer's Strikes One of Us

Op-ed: When Alzheimer's Strikes One of Us

Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me is a graphic memoir by lesbian cartoonist-author Sarah Leavitt about losing her mother to Alzheimer’s.

Today 5.4 million Americans are struggling with the terminal disease that is personally impacting more and more of us. My own grandma died of Alzheimer’s in 1999, the same year Leavitt’s mother was officially diagnosed.

Most people know that Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurological disease that eats away at a person’s memories. The Alzheimer’s patient is commonly portrayed as no longer recognizing their own loved ones.

In reality, Alzheimer’s is far more devastating.

As Tangles (Skyhorse Publishing, $14.95) illustrates, people with Alzheimer’s often forget what everyday objects, like keys or silverware, are used for, not where those items may have been stored. They often lose what we think of as muscle memory as well, forgetting how to do common, almost reflexive physical actions like getting out of a car or brushing their teeth.

Worse, Alzheimer’s doesn’t just delete memories; in some ways the disease steals away the person themselves. It slowly erodes their personality until eventually, everything that made that person uniquely themselves has been washed away. For me, that became crystal clear the day my conservative and pious 84-year-old grandma began cursing and screaming at the TV,  yelling, "That fucking slut" whenever Deanna Troi showed up on screen as we watched Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For Leavitt, this happened when her animal-loving mother didn’t even notice that the car she was in had hit a stray dog. She describes her mother slowly receding into the distance as everything that made her began to fade.

For some readers, the real-life story that Tangles explores in sparse black-and-white drawings and straightforward prose will be a realization of their greatest fears.

For one thing, Leavitt’s mother suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed at a relatively young age — 52 when her symptoms became obvious — and her illness progressed quickly. She passed away soon after turning 60. (My grandmother was 90 when she died). Before Alzheimer’s, Leavitt’s mother was a whip-smart, active, and engaged woman. She had attended Radcliffe College, was a renowned teacher in Canada, and ended up working for the New Brunswick government designing the curriculum for all of the kindergartens in the providence.

There’s something particularly painful about watching a brilliant mind dissolve. And although many researchers believe that keeping the mind active can actually delay Alzheimer’s, Leavitt’s mother was still working when her mind deteriorated.

The fact that Leavitt’s mother was such an intelligent, quick-witted woman meant that she was quite aware that she was losing her faculties. That awareness made the process all the more difficult for her; she was angry and bitter and lashed out at those closest to her. She didn’t want to need their help.


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