Realities of Alzheimer’s and Overcoming Stigma – A Person with Alzheimer’s Speaks

HPLogo_NO_TAG_TODD_2.2011 smaller By Michael Ellenbogen, a person with Alzheimer’s. Also, a Health Power Editor and Advisor and global expert on angel-world-logo-smallAlzheimer’s, Dementia and Caregiving

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia affect more than 35 million people worldwide today. An astonishing fact that today someone in the world develops dementia every 4 seconds. By the middle of the century more than 115 million people will be affected by the disease if we do nothing.
My name is Michael Ellenbogen, and I am living with Alzheimer’s and trying to make a difference. I was previously a high-level manager in the telecommunication industry. In 2008, I was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease (YOAD) after struggling to get a diagnosis since my first symptoms at age 39. Losing my job and not being able to work had a huge impact on my life as I was a workaholic. I am now an Alzheimer’s advocate and a spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Association (U.S.) as a member of its national 2012 Early-Stage Advisory Group.

I am so frustrated, because no one realizes how seriously disabled I am. If I had a loss of limb or some other visual ailment, it would make people realize. I don’t want them to feel sorry for me or pity me, just want to be understood. So many people say you do not seem to have Alzheimer’s, and that frustrates me. Let me tell you what it’s like to live with this debilitating and progressive disease.
Imagine for one minute that your friend, relative or family member has Alzheimer’s and has to deal with the following issues:

  • When I go shopping and look at items, most of them never really register in my mind, even though I see it clearly.
  • I have trouble making decisions, because I question whether I am making the right one.
  • I can no longer enjoy my favorite hobbies, because it requires processing skills that I no longer have. I went from being a gadget person, to now being threatened by technology that I no longer can use. This is what I deal with and so much more.
  • I go to a happy affair only to be tortured by the noise and surrounding conversations, because of the loudness that cannot be filtered out.
  • If people try to speak with me in a public setting where there are many other conversations, I just don’t understand what they are saying. This is because all of the people speaking come in at the same volume level. All the words run together, and it sounds like a foreign language.
  • I went from being extremely proactive to becoming much less active and motivated.
  • I leave things around the house and don’t put them away, because I don’t know where they go or feel I may not know where to retrieve them again.
  • One moment I am nice, and another I may fly off the handle.
  • I can no longer write or speak like I used to. My friends slowly become distant and usually speak to my wife. I do realize this.
  • I worry every day about the challenges ahead.
  • Or even worse, I am losing my mind and see it happening, but I cannot do anything to change the course.
  • People always say ‘if I can do anything just let me know.” If I take them up on that offer, they back out of their commitments.

I have become extremely surprised by the lack of public commitment to my pleas for support of Alzheimer’s disease. While some may be sympathetic in the moment, there appears to be little follow-through. This is very upsetting, because I feel as though it affects me personally as well as the millions of others living with the disease. I was always there for others when they needed it and now I feel alone.

many people just coast through the day, I have to use 110% of my processing skills to do most things, which increases the stress and frustration. The worst part about this disease is knowing that I am doing all these things wrong and have no way to control or stop it, and it’s only getting worse as the days go by. I used to save lots of money by doing so many things around the house. Now I lost the drive, determination and skills needed to do those things. Many times I hurt myself trying or make it worse.

I cannot begin to explain how it tears me up inside to see my spouse struggling to do the things that I once was capable of doing and know I cannot do a thing to help. I realize that one day I may no longer be able to drive and this devastates me. I see my wife becoming stressed, depressed and overwhelmed, but caregivers know it will only continue to get worse. Sadly, they keep telling themselves that they can do it all even when we know they will need help.
I, the patient, see it definitely. My wife is on the road to hell, and she does not even realize it yet, because she is so busy trying to block it all out. The worst part about all this is, I have not even reached the worst stage. That scares the hell out of me.

I have been so surprised by the stigma associated with this disease. It comes at you from all angles. People think they knew what Alzheimer’s is, but they don’t. I see this not only from people living with dementia but many media health correspondents, physicians and organizations that are geared to helping those deal with the disease. I have learned that I do not want to share my diagnosis with people I meet until they get to know me. If I was to tell them upfront, I would be treated so differently, which I have learned. I kind of see this disease like HIV used to be. The people who have it are so afraid to let others know, including family. I do not get it. We did nothing wrong to get this disease, and we need to speak up to let our voice be heard. We did nothing and no one should be ashamed of having it. I feel so much better when I share it with others than when I try to hide it.

Because of my frustration with the existing environment for people with dementia, I realized change was needed. I decided to use my few skills left to advocate. I have spent some of my last few years being on television, radio, newspapers, many blogs and working with many politicians. I also had an opportunity to speak at all of the public sessions to develop the first U.S. National Alzheimer’s Plan, all this on my own. But that was not enough, because I ran into so many people who just did not want to get involved. I am now a volunteer for the national Alzheimer’s Association Early-Stage Advisory Group. If there is something I want you to walk away with it’s that you can make a difference, but it will take persistence. Write a letter to your public official or reach out to local support organizations to create needed programs and services. Your voice and your story are powerful tools. Please get involved.

The simple truth is, if you have not been touched by this devastating and debilitating disease yet, consider yourself extremely lucky. Sadly, it’s just a matter of time before it touches you. It is my hope that my actions today may prevent future generations from suffering with this disease. So give yourself piece of mind and do something today. I hope that what I am doing will allow me to leave this world knowing that I did everything possible to make that next generation have a fighting chance. There are no excuses for not wanting to help. The human cost factor is too high, and we are all accountable to do something.
There are many organizations out there like ADI and the Alzheimer’s Association that can help you. The Alzheimer’s Association got me started in many ways with my new journey. It not only helped me, but it also helped my wife as my caregiver. They have a website with many resources at www.alz.org. I encourage you to reach out today if you have not already. I would also encourage you to educate yourself.

Please join me and Go Purple on Sunday, Sept. 21 for World Alzheimer’s Day. I wear a purple Alzheimer’s bracelet every day. And for those living with Alzheimer’s, stop focusing on what you cannot do and join me in the battle to advocate. We still have so much to give, and we need to use our skills at our own speed. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I, and your loved ones, are counting on all of you.

 

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Norma J. Goodwin, MD
Founder, President & CEO
njgoodwin@healthpowerforminorities.com
Health Power for Minorities (Health Power)
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