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Learning from a father's 'rage'

October 29, 2009
by Jacqueline Marcell
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Healthcare professionals can help families by teaching the warning signs of Alzheimer’s

For 11 years I pleaded with my elderly father to allow a caregiver to help him with my ailing mother, but after 55 years of loving each other he adamantly insisted on taking care of her himself. Every caregiver I hired to help him sighed in exasperation, "Jacqueline, I just can't work with your father—his temper is impossible to handle. I don't think he’ll accept help until he's on his knees himself."

My father had always been 90% great, but boy that temper was a doozy. He’d never turned it on me before, but then again I'd never gone against his wishes either. When my mother nearly died from an infection caused by his inability to continue to care for her, I flew from southern California to San Francisco to try to save her life—having no idea that in the process it would nearly cost me my own.

Early signs of dementia?

Things got serious. My father had never laid a hand on me my whole life, but one day nearly choked me to death for adding HBO to his cable bill.

I spent three months nursing my 82-pound mother back to relative health, while my father would say he loved me one minute but then getting furious over some trivial thing, call me nasty names, and throw me out of the house the next. I was stunned to see him get so upset—even running the washing machine could cause a tizzy, and there was no way to reason with him. It was so heart wrenching to have my once-adoring father turn against me.

I immediately took my father to his doctor and was flabbergasted that he could act normal when he needed to! I could not believe it when the doctor looked at me as if I was the crazy one. She didn’t even take me seriously when I reported that my father nearly electrocuted my mother, but luckily I walked in three seconds before he plugged in a huge power strip that was soaking in a tub of water—along with my mother’s feet! Much later I was furious to find out my father had instructed his doctor (and everyone) not to listen to anything I said, because I was just a liar and all I wanted was his money.

Then things got serious. My father had never laid a hand on me my whole life, but one day nearly choked me to death for adding HBO to his cable bill, even though he had eagerly consented to it a few days before. Terrified, I dialed 911 and the police took him to the hospital for evaluation. I was so shocked when they released him right away, saying they couldn't find anything wrong with him. What is even more astonishing is that similar incidents occurred three more times.

Caregiver catch-22

I was trapped. I couldn't fly home and leave my mother alone with my father—she'd surely die from his inability to care for her. I couldn't get healthcare professionals to believe me—my father was always so sane in front of them. I couldn't get medication to calm him and even when I finally did—he refused to take it, threw it in my face, or flushed it down the toilet. I couldn't get him to accept a caregiver and even when I did—no one would put up with him very long. I couldn't place my mother in a nursing home—he'd just take her out. I couldn't put him in a home—he didn't qualify. They both refused Assisted Living—legally I couldn't force them.

I became a prisoner in my parents' home for nearly a year trying to solve crisis after crisis, crying rivers daily, and infuriated with an unsympathetic medical system that wasn't helping me appropriately.

Dementia specialist makes diagnosis

(Reprinted with permission of the Alzheimer’s Association)

1. Memory loss
2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks
3. Problems with language
4. Disorientation of time and place
5. Poor or decreased judgment
6. Problems with abstract thinking
7. Misplacing things
8. Changes in mood or behavior
9. Changes in personality
10. Loss of initiative

Expanded Descriptions:

You don't need a doctorate degree to know something is wrong, but you do need the right doctor who can diagnose and treat dementia properly. Finally, I stumbled upon a neurologist specialized in dementia who performed a battery of blood, neurological, memory tests, and CT/P.E.T. scans. He also reviewed my parents’ medications and ruled out reversible dementias such as a B12 or thyroid deficiency. And then, you should have seen my face drop when he diagnosed Stage One Alzheimer's in both of my parents—something all their other doctors had missed entirely.

What I'd been coping with was the beginning of Alzheimer’s, which begins intermittently and appears to come and go. I didn't understand that my father was addicted and trapped in his own bad behavior of a lifetime and his habit of yelling to get his way was coming out over things that were illogical ... at times. I also didn't understand that demented does not mean dumb (a concept not widely appreciated) and that he was still socially adjusted never to show his "Hyde" side to anyone outside the family. Even with the onset of dementia, it was amazing he could still be so manipulative and crafty. On the other hand, my mother was as sweet and lovely as she’d always been.

Balancing brain chemistry