Two decades ago, I called my grandfather who had moved into an assisted living facility after the death of my grandmother when he was in his early eighties. I lived over 750 miles away, and I had only ever seen my grandfather once or twice a year because of the distance, but he was a prolific letter writer. He didn't answer. As with any elderly loved one, I was concerned. After not being able to reach him, I contacted the facility only to be informed that he had been admitted to a psych ward. What? Yes, I was told, he has Alzheimer's. Impossible, said I. He's too old to suddenly develop Alzheimer's. No, he's got it and got it bad. I said, no, he has bi-polar, but there's no way he has Alzheimer's. I was told I would need to talk to someone else. Okay.
I finally reached his doctor. Keep in mind this was pre-HIPPA. Now, I have nothing against foreigners, but between a heavy accent and the attitude toward women, I had a difficult time understanding how the diagnosis had been reached. I called repeatedly. I have to say that the doctor probably hated my guts. After a couple of months, I finally discovered that my grandfather's medication had been altered, and that's when he had gone off the rails. You don't think that would have anything to do with his sudden change in behavior? I asked. No, I am the one with the multiple degrees in medicine. You don't know what you're talking about, I was told. Having a degree does not mean one has any common sense, I responded. Yes, I'm sure he hated me.
Along with one of his daughters, I went to visit my grandfather to assess his situation. The last time I had seen him, which had only been six to eight months, he had been mobile and had all his teeth. He was then in a wheel chair, they'd let his teeth rot out, and for the four days we were there, he never once was bathed or changed. I was horrified. He recognized me but not his own daughter. He was definitely unbalanced, but he begged me to help him. To this day, it was the saddest thing I had ever seen.
His daughter and I finally gained control of him and moved him into a nursing home near where we lived. We had to sign multiple documents stating we would not sue anyone before the local doctor would finally agree to switch my grandfather back to his previous medication for his bi-polar disorder. Almost immediately, my grandfather returned to his normal self. No Alzheimer's. With physical therapy, he regained enough strength to walk and lived quite happily for his few remaining years.
Then last year, I moved my elderly aunt from Tennessee to Missouri. She has COPD, is on oxygen, and only takes medication for her breathing. The trip was difficult on her. She quit eating, drank excessively, became disoriented and confused. Within days, I had her at the hospital. She went completely nutso. Not a medical term, I know, but she did. Walking naked in the halls crazy. She refused treatment. For days she didn't eat. They refused to strap her down and stick an IV in her. I was infuriated. She needed nutrition and, I thought, probably antibiotics. The only thing they wanted to give her was anti-psychotic drugs. What? Why? I asked. Because she obviously has dementia. No, I said, she is not normally like this. She's just like you or me, well, a little eccentric maybe, but definitely not crazy. All of the medical personnel didn't believe me. Refused to believe me. I didn't know what I was talking about, etc. Sound familiar? It was incredibly frustrating. It took five months before I found a doctor who actually listened to me. Then he strapped her down, stuck an IV in her, gave her antibiotics and nutrition. Basically re-balanced all her body chemicals. Guess what? Are you ready? That's right...no dementia! No crazy. Does not need anti-psychotics!
I am writing this because an elderly cousin was recently diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's after being hospitalized for a mild heart attack. I said, but she's too old to suddenly develop Alzheimer's. The cousin I was talking to said that she had become forgetful over the past year. I said, okay, well, here's the story of my grandfather. Please be sure that it has nothing to do with medication. Through the phone I could feel the resistance to my idea, and it really depressed me. A month later my cousin was put into rehab and they changed her medication. Guess what? That's right, no Alzheimer's. No dementia. Apparently after the death of her husband they put her on anti-depressants. Completely understandable. Then she became forgetful, etc., but it was due to the medication. I managed to NOT say I told you so. Until now that is.
I would think that there are many people located in Alzheimer's wards who are there because of medication rather than truly having a disease. But they have no advocate. No one to say, hey, he/she wasn't like this just six months ago, so this is impossible. Medication has a tremendous effect on our body and our brain. We have become an over-medicated nation. I am not opposed to a prescription drug if it is truly necessary. I just think that doctors are too quick to prescribe medicine before trying other methods, and then when a medication is changed, they are too quick to say 'oh, it's disease X and not medication.'
If your loved one has been or you know someone who has been suddenly diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's, please be an advocate. Step up and say, hey, are you sure? Has a medication recently been changed, taken away, or added? If so, maybe try something different just to be sure that a disease is truly present. Good luck!