Progressive and eventually debilitating, Alzheimer’s disease is devastating. Just ask anyone who knows or loves someone with the disease. Sadly, that includes many of us. Dom Moloney lost his grandfather, Arthur, to the disease. His wife lost her great aunt Milly, who was like a mother to her when she was younger. Dom is from the United Kingdom and works at PRA Health Sciences, where he is getting ready to be part of a cycling event with more than 100 of his colleagues from 15 different countries. PRA Cares: Vienna to Prague will benefit the Alzheimer’s Association, and from July 12-16, the team will travel approximately 100 kilometers (70 miles) per day.
We spoke to Dom about the event and his personal connection to Alzheimer’s.
Can you tell us about the people you have lost to Alzheimer’s?
My grandfather, Arthur, died of vascular dementia and my wife’s great aunt Milly died of Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago. Arthur had a strong influence on me from a young age. He was a very spiritual man and had a brilliant sense of humor. He was there at many of the important moments in my life, including being my sponsor at confirmation. I have many happy memories of playing as a child at his house; holidaying together; and, after his wife died, helping him in his garden. My favorite memory was the first time he met my then girlfriend (now wife) but without looking up, assumed it was my sister. His first greeting to her was, “Hello O pregnant one...” Obviously everyone fell about laughing whilst my very slim girlfriend looked around for my very pregnant sister! Milly looked after my wife and taught her many life skills. Milly was very mischievous and always had a cheeky glint in her eye. She was always a little batty and often played for attention by pretending to forget things. This made it all the harder when Alzheimer’s disease set in, as we never knew when she was just playing around and when she really couldn’t remember where the bathroom was in her one-bedroom flat!
What do you think is the most difficult aspect of the disease?
There are many things that make Alzheimer’s difficult. The fact that someone you love not only doesn’t recognize you but sometimes thinks you’re coming to do them harm, or mistakes you for someone they used to love...it's hard. One time, my grandfather saw my mother and her brother and asked where Margaret was. (Margaret was his first wife who had died a decade or more earlier.) When they broke it gently to him, he was distraught. It was only after several minutes they realized he meant my mother and just got the name wrong and hadn’t recognized her. Physically, Alzheimer’s destroys people. Milly was never a small woman and must have weighed 15 or 16 stone when she first went to the hospital. By the end, she had literally shriveled to a 5-stone shell with paper-thin skin covering her bones. She ‘drank’ water from a toothbrush as she was too weak to use a cup.
What helped you and your family during this difficult time?
We are very fortunate to have two sons of our own who were quite young at the time Milly was in hospital. They would often come to visit with us, and the people living with Alzheimer's and dementia in the hospital would all coo over these beautiful children. Seeing the light that a little bit of youth brought to their day – or just someone to talk to – really cheered them up, which in turn helped us. Ultimately, we relied on each other as a family to get through the tough times.
What advice would you give someone who might first be learning that a loved one has been diagnosed with the disease?
Be patient and loving. Alzheimer’s confuses the person living with it and frustrates them enormously. Simply sitting with them and holding their hand is often enough for them. And use the periods of clarity – even when quite far gone, you may get short bursts of clarity where you’re recognized or a shared memory resurfaces. Grab these times and enjoy the moment. Be kind, be loving and cherish every moment. And when at last they pass on, rejoice that they are no longer in distress.
Are you hopeful that we will find a cure?
Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease and I have to believe we will one day find a cure. I never wish to see anyone suffer as Milly did – or her family and friends.
Knowing your personal connection to the disease and the fact that PRA Cares: Vienna to Prague will benefit the Alzheimer’s Association, how does this cycle event take on added significance for you?
Whilst I always loved cycling as a child, I’d not done it for 25 years until last year when my sister wanted to do a crazy challenge raising money for multiple sclerosis (MS) charities. We cycled up the Col du Galibier (a French Alp on the Tour de France route), raising £2500 (more than $3200) in the process. I loved being on the bike, out in nature and raising money for a good cause, so when the opportunity came up to cycle with PRA to raise money for Alzheimer's, a cause that is so close to my heart, I had to do it. Last year, when the going got tough, I remembered those people I know battling MS. This year, I’ll remember Arthur and Milly; their memory will get me up the steep hills and through the last 10 km!