Lessons of Coronavirus in the Age of Alzheimer’s

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April 27, 2020 - Greg O'Brien
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The New York Times terms it “The Great Empty.” Haunting images of Coronavirus: vultures circling above the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, docked in the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side; dead bodies loaded onto a refrigerator truck with a forklift; rats running amuck on empty subway platforms; domestic violence in the company of assailants; an empty Wailing Wall in the ancient city of Jerusalem.

Did you ever think you’d be asked to wear a mask in a bank?

Even the seagulls down the street from where we live on Outer Cape Cod are not congregating as much as they do each spring at the annual herring run. The caw of the gulls seems to have been silenced a bit, in a real or imagined social distancing, as the alewives, with silvery sides, a blend of gray and green on their backs, make their way in gut instinct against all odds up stone ladders from the ocean to the freshwater mill ponds to spawn in their place of birth.  

The Great Empty…

The maudlin wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus worldwide—the millions of infections, the thousands and thousands of deaths, the mounting casualties still to come, the growing millions of millions unemployed—is explosively reshaping our universe today, perhaps in some ways not seen since the Big Bang.

The devastation has caused us to rethink life in fundamental ways. When the fog eventually clears and the “cold comes out of our tummies” (as my three-year-old granddaughter Adeline says of the coronavirus) many will ponder: What else have we missed, what have we learned from all this?

Coronavirus was introduced into a community worldwide that had no immunity, no vaccine, no magical thinking to wish it away. There are parallels here worth considering now, as we brace for a likely second round of the deadly virus this fall. As the Book of Revelations counsels: “He who has an ear, let him hear…”

Consider for a moment, the penetrating collateral isolation, the anxiety, rage, the suicidal depression of the coronavirus. Put all that on steroids, and now you may have a better sense of what’s it’s like to live with dementia, a taste of what it’s like to be inside the mind of Alzheimer’s. Not to take a sliver away from the horrific ruin of coronavirus, but nearly 50 million worldwide suffer from Alzheimer’s or a related form of dementia; millions and millions have died, millions of millions more to come. The costs are staggering; the cure, without greater infusions of resources, is fleeting. Care costs annually in the United States alone are estimated at close to $300 billion, and caregivers provide an estimated 18.5 billion hours of informal, unpaid assistance, a contribution valued at close to $240 billion annually.

The good work of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s (UsA2), where I serve on the board, must continue to stop Alzheimer’s. A recent UsA2 A-LIST survey found that the coronavirus crisis is having significant effects on caregivers of people living with Alzheimer's and dementia, raising uncertainty and concerns about who would take care of a loved one if the caregiver was infected with the virus—increasing already high levels of isolation and stress. Survey results show that seventy-one percent are unsure of what would happen to a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia if the caregiver gets sick with the COVID-19 coronavirus; eighty-two percent of caregivers say their stress is far higher now. Off the charts.

I know first-hand of the stress. Alzheimer’s has devastated generations of my family tree. My maternal grandfather, my mother, and my paternal uncle died of Alzheimer’s, and before my father’s death, he too was diagnosed with dementia. I was the family caregiver on Cape Cod for my parents. After their deaths, I also was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after experiencing the horrific symptoms, and after serious head traumas that doctors say unleashed a monster in the making.

Now, I don’t want a single cent less raised for research and care to fight cancer, heart disease, aids, autism, and other ruinating diseases. I’m sensitive to this. I also have cancer; it’s in my family as well. But it will take generous contributions over time, a motherload of it, to fight the demon of dementia that prowls like Abaddon, and will pounce in greater, boundless numbers.

So, what have we learned from the Coronavirus, what are the lessons?

Priorities to some extent now appear to be changing for the good in many circles, a blessing. We’re becoming, as the late George H.W. Bush had hoped, a “kinder, gentler nation.” We’re more forgiving, less judgmental, discarding some of our misguided stereotypes.

This has had an overdue leveling effect across our society in terms of what’s worthy, what is a priority. First responders, health care workers, police officers, and firemen, as they were during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are the all-stars of life, the true heroes. Celebrities, sports stars, stock portfolio hotshots, corporate icons, writers and journalists need not apply. These are gifts given to us, not of our own. We share them, not boast in them.

The time of darkness has brought out the best on so many fronts. And with your on-going love, caring and continued support for the fight to stop Alzheimer’s, the best, like a bright sunrise at dawn, is on the horizon.

God bless you…

Greg O’Brien is author of On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, the first book written by an investigative journalist embedded inside the mind of Alzheimer’s chronicling the progressions of his own disease. He is a member of the Board of Directors of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s.

 

About the Author

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Greg O'Brien

UsAgainstAlzheimer's is a 501(c)(3) organization connecting networks of organizations and individuals to take action to end Alzheimer’s by 2020, while providing the general public, policy leaders and the media with vital information about Alzheimer’s disease.