Learning a New Way to Be a Granddaughter

For World Alzheimer's Month, a writer shares what she learned after her grandfather was diagnosed.

Hillary Crosley with her grandfather Curtis (Courtesy of Hillary Crosley)

(The Root) -- "I just didn't realize the extent of your grandfather's illness because I was so busy taking caring of Mommy," my mother has a habit of saying.

In 2009 my grandmother Olevia died of interstitial lung disease, and her passing has been extremely hard on my mother. Three years later she's still grieving, and so am I, in some ways. My "granny" was one of my best friends.

And while she and I had a close relationship, from gossiping about church folks to the latest family drama, I've since gotten to know my grandfather Curtis in a new way because my mother and I realized that he was suffering himself, from Alzheimer's.

The Signs

Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, describes a number of conditions that occur when the brain's nerve cells die or cannot function normally. This development causes changes in one's memory, behavior and ability to think clearly.

Studies suggest (pdf) that two-thirds of people with the disease are women, and older African Americans are about twice as likely as older whites to have Alzheimer's and other dementias, while Hispanics are about one-and-a-half times as likely as older whites to have Alzheimer's and other dementias. The cerebral deterioration, which can wipe away the sufferer's ability to walk or even swallow, is fatal.

At first the disease my grandfather shares with 5.4 million other Americans appeared in small ways, like getting lost on the way to places he once knew or abruptly walking away from a task.

"I knew something was wrong when he picked me up from the airport to head to church and drove right by the street," my mother recalls.

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 Mom and I thought that my grandfather just wasn't paying attention, but then we realized that he couldn't see the errors, and my granny had been organizing his affairs. From handling his church-choir presidential duties to making sure he didn't walk out of their South Central home mismatching and "looking a hooksy," as she'd say, her forethought kept us in the dark. But once she fell ill and couldn't care for herself and her husband anymore, we saw the signs.