In early December, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary—an incredible accomplishment for any couple. But this one didn't go as originally planned. My father had hoped to celebrate with a nice evening of conversation, reminiscing about their years together. Instead, he spent it as a caregiver.
In 2013, my mother was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a disease which robbed her of the ability to speak or participate in normal conversation. The disease curtailed the things my father dreamed of for their retirement years and especially for this milestone anniversary.
This time of year, it's not just anniversaries that pose challenges. The holidays can do the same.
So I was posed with a challenge when my father called me back in the fall to talk about the upcoming anniversary. He wanted me to think about what he could do for this special occasion, with both his wife and two sons. Something that we could share together, to make a new memory, but that wouldn't require consistent communication from my mother. When you have a family member afflicted with a change in personality—and the inability to say how they feel, explain what they want to eat, or even express where they want to go—you realize that party planning is no easy task.
I began with what I know about Alzheimer's and dementia patients. Their brains may have significantly atrophied, but small vestiges remain that respond favorably to art and music. Since my father was always more comfortable in a baseball stadium than in an art museum, I thought it best to go with music. But what kind?
Movies like Alive Inside, which is about about how music familiarity can cause brain stimulation and even awaken patients to their pasts, reminded me that I needed to pick something that my mother experienced during a much earlier time. And not just once. It had to be recurring, with music that had been ingrained into her life's soundtrack. I thought back to the 1960s, when music and musicals were thriving. I picked Fiddler on the Roof, once again revived on Broadway. Suggesting this to my father, he quickly recounted how many times they had seen this together. Listening to him recall these memories, I realized how hard it must be for him and for all the husbands and wives who think back on their lives with loved ones who are no longer themselves.
This time of year, it's not just anniversaries that pose challenges. The holidays can do the same. Planning celebrations, exchanging gifts, and spending time together are all more difficult when a family member lives with frontotemporal dementia or another cognitive disorder.
The holidays are a time to share memories and make them, and those memories should not be taken away from us. That's why it's more important than ever to contribute to the cause. This holiday season, I’m supporting the ADDF and its critical work in drug discovery and development.
As for my Mom, she recognized many of the songs from Fiddler on the Roof. I heard her humming to "Tradition," and clapping on her lap to "If I Were a Rich Man." She may have even uttered a few words from "Sunrise, Sunset." In the end, she did what she had always done—she stood and clapped during the encores. I hope we gave her another memory. At the very least, we created one for me, my father, and my brother. We still had my mother with us.
For one night, we were all very rich men.
This holiday season, consider a donation to the ADDF. With your support, we will conquer Alzheimer's and related dementias.
Adam Rowe is a 20-year media sales and marketing professional who has held positions at Telerep, Viacom, and AOL/Time Warner. He is currently Director of Ad Sales at Time Warner Cable News/NY1.