Ed Roland, Jr. is a musician, singer, songwriter and record producer known for his career with rock band Collective Soul.
I first witnessed Alzheimer's in my small southern town some 50 years ago, where my father was a Baptist minister. Prior to this experience, I never recalled hearing the word ‘Alzheimer's’ spoken. A man from our congregation had been forgetting things; he then wandered out of his house and fell into a ditch. I didn’t understand why. Later, my cousin's grandfather, Mr. Swain, one of the sweetest men on the planet, developed the disease. As a kid, I remember his family caring for him, bathing him. He didn't know who his family was any more. And he didn’t know himself.
Today, Alzheimer’s has hit very close to home. My father-in-law is in the final stages of the disease.
Alzheimer's can slowly deprive you of life. Watching it happen in front of you is beyond heartbreaking. My father-in-law was a strong man, full of pride, full of energy, and he lost everything, all those facets of his personality. One blessing is that he can still communicate. He can still say “I love you.”
Putting it bluntly — Alzheimer’s disease sucks. It is the toughest experience for everyone who loves the person living with the disease. I think most families would wish for just 30 seconds of their loved one recognizing them, loving them, communicating with them the way they used to.
Embracing My Father-in-Law
I lost my own father 18 years ago, in the blink of an eye. Now I’m seeing someone live through a horrific disease that can draw itself out for years upon years.
My father-in-law became my father after my own dad passed, and to watch my wife lose that strength from her patriarch — slowly, over time — is beyond painful. She has benefited so much from support groups, and she has been able to share tactics and tips she learned every time she attended a meeting, especially in regards to approaching care, behaviors, and day-to-day life. By joining those groups, she helped herself, and our entire family.
You can’t pretend Alzheimer’s is not happening, so don’t. Families need to face this disease with all the love and energy they have. Make sure the person you love is as comfortable and happy as they can be. We are very lucky that my father-in-law is sweet, grateful, and thinks every meal is the best meal he has ever had! We have not seen some of the signs that other families must face, like daily agitation or aggression.
When you get married, you promise to be there for your partner, for better or for worse. You never want your spouse to hurt, and they will hurt when Alzheimer’s is in their life. But we keep going. We found an assisted living situation where my father-in-law is well cared for.
While we never know what each day would be like on this journey, on a good day, my 12-year-old son will shoot basketball with his grandpa, and just go with the flow when awkward moments inevitably crop up. Embarrassing comments will be made by the person with the disease. Some will be heartbreaking, some will be funny. When my father-in-law asks my wife where her ‘boyfriend’ is, we consider that just another memory we are creating with him.
My best advice is to enjoy the happy moments and laugh when you can. My father-in-law loves to get his hair and nails done, so some of that pride he was known for is still there. He is still Bill, the man we all love.
Finding Support, Feeling the Music
Finding the right local or virtual support group can be a lifesaver. My wife has found the experience to be incredibly therapeutic. You can vent — or just listen. How special, to connect with other people going through the same thing you are, one of the most difficult experiences someone can experience. It’s a game changer.
The tactics you learn through a support system are invaluable, and some elements of life, like music, are always going to be a powerful tool. As a musician, songwriter and producer, music has been a huge passion of my life. Today, when I get into the car with my father-in-law, he cranks the tunes up. He will dance, and sometimes he will sing along to one of my own songs I put on.
As he gets into it, he’ll say “This is good. Who is this?” I tell him, “Dad, it's me,” and he says, “Wow, you are so talented.” I can only smile. My brother recently played The Ramones for him, and he just loved it. He never would have listened to The Ramones before developing his disease! He was a proper guy in a suit and tie. Today, he enjoys the vibrations of the music; he enjoys the moment. And as his family, we try to enjoy every single moment with him. Embrace those moments, let them know you love them and they will let you know they love you right back.
My earliest memory is watching my dad sing and my mom play piano, warming up every Sunday morning before church. I know one thing for sure: Life is better when you can spend it with friends and family, music, and unconditional love.
About: Ed Roland encourages families to seek out support in their community as they face Alzheimer’s disease. He has partnered with eco-fashion brand One Golden Thread to raise awareness of Alzheimer's through an artist t-shirt collaboration benefiting the Alzheimer’s Association. Learn more.
Music, Art and Alzheimer's