Tragedy of Alzheimer’s Inspires Family Lessons
By Dennis Buden
The most wonderful thing recently happened in my family, and it came to be because of a man named Charlie, whose demise at the ripe age of 90 turned out to be as inspiring as it was heartbreaking.
Charlie was my father-in-law, and Charlie died of Alzheimer’s disease. As we pause for World Alzheimer’s Day September 21 to reflect on this debilitating scourge and the more than 5 million Americans it afflicts, I am struck by the enormous role Alzheimer’s has played in my life (my Mom suffered from it, as well) and the irony of its having given me such treasured gifts, even as it ravaged those I loved.
Charlie was a great guy, the kind of man every son-in-law should have as his wife’s father. A lifelong salesman of provisions, Charlie was the quintessential quick sketch – a straight-talker with an easy smile, happy with life’s simplest of pleasures, a bit rumpled and always with his ball cap on crooked.
I got a real glimpse into just what kind of guy Charlie was some years after his retirement. Charlie missed his old pals in the business, and suggested we take a ride. We headed to Mucke’s in the north end of Hartford, whose meat products Charlie had sold to Connecticut markets for years. When Charlie walked in the door, it was like a class reunion – the hugs and handshakes were hearty, the affection and respect palpable. Needless to say we walked out with more cold cuts than we knew what to do with.
Next we headed to Bliss Market in Wethersfield, a long-time client. Though most of his old cronies were retired or had passed on, Charlie’s mere presence prompted a cavalcade of well-wishers – most of whom were only knee-high when Charlie was in his prime. I drove home with Charlie that day, happy that I helped him relive the good old days, and more appreciative than ever of having such a special father-in-law.
It was six or eight years ago that we first noticed Charlie not being Charlie. The quaint stories he would always tell were no longer making so much sense. The memory was fading, too; it became clear we were dealing with accelerating dementia.
About two years ago, when Charlie started truly failing, the family determined we would do everything in our power to keep him home. Our ability to do this would not have been possible without the selfless devotion of my wife, Charlene, who as a nurse certainly had the skill set to care for her Dad, but more importantly had the unfailing love and conviction to carry out the enormous task of primary caregiver.
In Charlie’s final months, he slipped away to that sad place where only those who suffer from dementia go. Yet I will never forget Charlene’s unique ability to elicit telling reactions from her father, even when others assumed his mind was “gone.” Charlie could no longer speak, had to be fed, cleaned and changed regularly, but Charlene would faithfully wash his face, comb his hair, caress his hands, all while whispering sweet nothings into his ear. During these moments, Charlie’s perpetual leaden expression would often break into the sweetest, most gentle smile – just the reassurance Charlene and the family needed to continue on.
As painful as the process was, and as difficult as caring for him came to be, Charlie’s illness inspired a family unity that will impact us all forever. Charlie never did have to leave his own home. In his final days, as he lay dying in his own bed of nearly 60 years, family members were on 24-hour vigil, pitching in to love and support Mom and each other, faithfully keeping Dad comfortable, praying for his eventual peace.
When Charlie took his last breath, it was with his beloved wife, children and grandchildren by his side. If such a thing is possible, a man who had lived a good life had died a good death – and had left his family more loving, compassionate and closer than ever. The tragedy was not in Charlie’s dying, but in the way that Alzheimer’s disease stole him from us in his final years; the joy was in the gift he and this disease nevertheless gave us, even in his final days.
The day before Charlie’s wake, Charlene encountered an old acquaintance. Knowing that Charlie had died of Alzheimer’s, the acquaintance inquired, “What nursing home did you put your Dad in?” “We didn’t,” stated Charlene.
Taken aback, the acquaintance asked, “But how could you have done that? He didn’t even know who you were!”
Without skipping a beat, my wife replied, “But I knew who he was.”
(Charlie Ambrosetti of Windsor, Conn., passed away on August 28. Dennis Buden of Manchester, Conn., is a freelance writer and public relations consultant.)