54: Life Interrupted

54: Life Interrupted

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Life Interrupted

Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.

~Marcel Proust

It was the longest one-hour ride Richard and I had ever made, from our home in Richmond, Virginia to the University of Virginia (UVA) medical building. In the past, most of our trips to the university were to attend a meeting, since Richard was on the board of directors. This trip, however, was personal and one we were both dreading.

My husband Richard is well known in the business world. He was chief executive officer of Circuit City stores for twenty years, founder of CarMax, and served as chairman of the board of Crocs, known best for its colorful shoes.

But for me, Richard Sharp has always been the handsome, athletic seventeen-year-old boy I met in high school at age sixteen. As a cheerleader, dating this smart football player was picture perfect! It was literally love at first sight for me. We were married August 17, 1968, and forty-five years later, he is still the love of my life.

No one knows Richard better than I, so when he questioned how to get back home from dinner one night, I knew to be concerned. This day is five years later, in the car on our way to UVA to meet with the doctor for results on neurological tests taken a couple of weeks ago.

While sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, I tried to prepare for what I believed to be inevitable news. After being called into his office, the doctor, who Richard knew well following his years of involvement with UVA, looked directly at him and said, “The test shows you are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I’m sorry.”

The doctor then went into a long list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” I brushed aside the tears that were welling up. It felt more like a verdict than a diagnosis.

“It’s important to get your life in order. You will no longer be able to do business where other people’s money is involved. You will have to remove yourself from any public boards. You also need to hand over power of attorney involving any personal legal issues.”

And then this, the most upsetting question: “How is your driving?” Thankful he had asked the question, I looked at Richard, who replied, “I do all right.”

“No Richard, you don’t do all right,” I said. The look he gave me was one I’d seldom seen in our many years together.

The doctor continued, “Let me ask you a question, Richard. Do you drive with your grandchildren in the car?”

“No,” he said.

“So, you won’t drive with your own grandchildren in the car but you’ll drive on the road where other people’s grandchildren may be riding?”

For the first time that afternoon, I saw Richard become visibly emotional. In the years after working hard, his success had afforded him the joy of buying and driving cars that before he could only dream about.

“I have all of my cars. What am I suppose to do with them if I can’t drive them?” he asked.

We left the doctor’s office and made our way back to the parking lot. Richard handed me the keys to the car and we drove back to Richmond in silence.

When we came into our den, we sat on the sofa, held each other and cried. So many changes we would have to make seemed a daunting task and one for which I personally felt unprepared and ill-equipped.

It has been three years since our visit with the doctor at UVA. We make regular visits to Johns Hopkins and work there with the wonderful doctors and nurses in the neurological department. We know other families are fighting the same battle we fight every day. More than five million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, and more than fifteen million are caregivers.

Richard was only sixty-three when he was diagnosed, which is considered younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. His bright mind may be slowly fading, but his energy and optimism remain strong. Our two daughters, their husbands and our four grandchildren have rallied around us with loving support. Some friends give time and expertise, while others provide comic relief, which helps tremendously.

As Richard’s primary caregiver, let me shed some light on what I have found to be helpful when looking to the future:

First and foremost, it is my faith that helps keep me going when what I’d really like to do is pull the covers over my head when morning comes. In one of my darkest moments early on, I opened my Bible to read and saw where God promises He will give us “treasures of darkness.” I look for these treasures, which are all around us, if we just keep our eyes and hearts open. And because I enjoy photography, I capture the treasures I see.

I’ve also found it helpful to set a personal goal, every day. A goal that has nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease or the responsibilities that accompany it. It can be time devoted to a hobby, or simply reading a chapter in a favorite book while the person in your care is resting. Or rest yourself.

You may not be able to afford outside help. If this is the case, when friends, family, or others offer their time, receive it as the loving gift it is intended to be without feelings of being a burden. They would not offer if they didn’t want to do it. Remember too, your local Alzheimer’s Association is available and willing to help whenever possible.

Listen when given advice, but without making any major decision in the moment. Well-meaning friends want to make things better for us by offering ideas. I love my friends and family, but at the end of the day, they all go home and we are left with the reality of our situation. So, “my advice” is to recognize the loving suggestions and then ponder and pray for guidance from God.

Finally, find humor when there’s an opportunity for it. Laughter is very healing for everyone, including the person with Alzheimer’s. I wish a cure could be that simple.

~Sherry Sharp

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