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Another side to Alzheimer’s disease

Another side to Alzheimer’s disease
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April 25, 2022
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A club he’d rather not join
Given his druthers, Mark Thompson would never have gotten involved with the Alzheimer’s Association. He wouldn’t have studied the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s. He wouldn’t have made the late-night calls to the Association’s Helpline to talk with the trained counselors. He wouldn’t have joined the Colorado Chapter’s board of directors and become an outspoken advocate for the cause.

MarkThompsonLo.pngBut he did all of that and, in the end, feels grateful for the support and resources that were available to guide him through his experience. Ironically, despite the devastating impact Alzheimer’s had on his mother’s memory and health, it may have also led to some of the happiest times he spent with his mother.

Thompson is a successful and confident professional, currently serving as chief growth officer for Delta Dental of Colorado. He’s faced many challenges, but nothing like the one he’d confront when his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease early in 2018.

“I’ve always felt like I have the ability to manage multiple tasks and have been successful in my career, juggling a variety of things at once,” he said. “But one of the more challenging things I’ve had to do was to go through the first steps of mom’s diagnosis, finding her a care facility, and other challenges that went along with that.” 

Rebuilding a relationship
Thompson’s role as caregiver for his mother wasn’t one he ever anticipated. Mother and son were separated when he was 4. He moved in with his grandparents after his parents divorced and had very little contact with his mother until his late twenties. His mother had a variety of health challenges, ranging from being a heavy smoker with poor diet and sleeping habits to living with anxiety and depression.

When Thompson married and had his own family, he tried to incorporate his mom and recreate the relationship he’d missed with her. But her mental illness made that challenging. Each family gathering would be marred by a conflict fueled by anxiety, depression and unresolved issues from her past family relationships.

“My wife and I would get frustrated with things my mom would say or do because we didn’t know the extent of what was going on with her,” he said. “For example, in the months leading up to her diagnosis, my mom began having more frequent episodes when she lost her balance and fell or needed to sit down due to sudden weakness, or felt ill while shopping. The staff at the retail stores would usually call 911 because they were worried about her and she was unable to tell them to call us. Each time she ended up in the emergency room. When we got that call, we knew we’d end up in ER for six hours and after expensive tests had been performed, we would then take her home.”

A diagnosis brings some relief – and understanding
For the majority of the 76,000 Coloradans living with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is a calamity…a dreaded life sentence. For Thompson and his wife, it was also a tragedy especially since this was a disease his mom was very afraid of after her sister was diagnosed and passed away from Alzheimer’s, but it was also a blessing.

“After we got the diagnosis and got mom the right care and treatment, we saw a joy and peace come over her that she hadn’t ever had before,” Thompson said. “She began taking needed medications that she hadn’t been taking, quit smoking, and had interactions with other assisted living facility residents that were an enormous improvement over being isolated at home. During the last few years of her life, she brought joy to residents and staff and in many ways became the person she was meant to be.”

Not everything went smoothly
That’s not to say that all went smoothly. There was the lengthy process of getting her diagnosed. There were also questions and doubts about whether to let mom continue to live on her own. 

The first months after his mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis were the most difficult due to the need to research and to explore the best senior living options and make all of the arrangements needed for her healthcare, house and dog. 

“After the move, we didn’t know if her new living arrangements were going to work for the first few months because of some trouble she had getting adjusted,” he said. “The first six months of getting her settled, were really difficult.

“This is what led me to want to be more involved in the Alzheimer’s Association,” Thompson said. “The help and support – in particular, the 24/7 Helpline that I utilized on multiple occasions with my mother – was critical to making decisions at each of the crossroads we came to regarding my mom. I’m generally someone who is self-reliant. Reaching out and asking for help isn’t something I would usually do. But I reached a point in the early months after mom’s diagnosis where I didn’t have an answer. Each time I called Helpline, I was impressed with the patience, responsiveness, knowledge and understanding (of the staff). Their ability to provide the right answer or right next step to take was important to me during a very challenging time when we were going through unchartered waters.”

The education that the Association provides to families on the disease and available resources is another benefit that Thompson feels is critical to families like his when encountering this disease for the first time.

“As I look back on the questions I asked during those calls (to the Helpline), there may have been some serious missteps that I would have made if not for the resources the Association provided to me,” he said. 

“For example, when we first moved mom into an assisted living facility, it wasn’t going well,” Thompson said. “We considered moving her back home because of disruptions she was causing due to her general level of anxiety and anger related to being there, along with the upheaval of being in an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar people. I had siblings who suggested moving her back to her house. Although I took that under consideration, it would have been a huge misstep and disruption to do that. The Helpline staff walked us through that process by giving us specific, timely and on-point recommendations and helped lead us in the right direction.”

Looking ahead 
Even though Thompson’s mom passed away in early 2021, that didn’t mark the end of his journey with the Alzheimer’s cause. In many ways, it was just the beginning. The lessons he learned about caring for someone with dementia made him realize that many other families are facing the same struggles as his family. And since half of all cases of Alzheimer’s are never diagnosed, many families are facing those challenges blindly.

The information about the disease provided by the Alzheimer’s Association combined with counsel given by the trained professionals on the Helpline helped Thompson and his family make informed choices about his mother’s care, improving her quality of life for her final years.

“It was enjoyable to spend time with her,” he said. “I probably visited her as many times in a year period as I had in the previous 10 to 15 years. Giving her the experience to be free of the depression, anxiety and negative thoughts was invaluable and a gift to her and to me. In that way, it was good. It helped me become a better person as well. I value my experience as my mom’s caregiver.”

Now in his second year on the board of directors of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, Thompson wants to share the knowledge he’s gained with other families facing the scourge of Alzheimer’s.

“The Alzheimer’s Association and the Helpline are a best-kept secret,” he said. “Most people don’t know that the Association is available to help with this difficult time. It’s okay to reach out for help.”

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