7.12.2004

Fred Luckau still has a grandpa's magic touch.

He knows just how to wrestle with his 8-year-old twin grandsons, Kevin and Devin. He's perfect at playing Chased by the Monster, to the delight of Ben, his 3-year-old grandson. He remembers all the funny little clucking noises that draw coos from granddaughter Kennedy Warme and great-grandson Caden Thayer, both 3 months old.

"He hasn't forgotten that," says his wife, Valerie.

To most of his 19 grandchildren, who range in age from 30 years to 3 months, Fred is "just grandpa, the way he has always been," she says.

Only, he is not.

Fred Luckau has Alzheimer's Disease, and the adults in his family are painfully aware of what the youngest grandchildren are not: The 76-year-old, retired computer technician has begun the long fade into the forgetting.

Approximately 4.5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer's, including 28,000 Utahns. Experts say the latter count may be about to explode, given the healthy lifestyles of Utahns, which leads to longer life spans. The state's population that is 85 and older -- half of whom are likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer's -- is expected to increase 38 percent by 2015.

That means many more families will, like the Luckaus, face the many sad tasks required when caring for a loved one with the disease.

Among them: helping grandchildren understand what is happening.

"Children just don't know what's going on," says Cheryl Ward, development director for the Utah Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "They may see a grandparent become violent, ignore them, say the same thing over and over, wander off. If it's a teen, it may be embarrassing. If it is a younger child, they may just be befuddled by it.

"If parents aren't explaining it to them, what are they to think?" Ward says -- particularly when the first thing grandchildren may experience is their own parent struggling to accept the bad news.

"When we first learned it was Alzheimer's, it really broke my heart," said Shahara Thomas, one of Fred and Valerie Luckau's seven children. "I was really sad, I just cried. The kids were like, 'What is going on?' "

Thomas, like her siblings, discussed their father's diagnosis with her older children.

"We've told them that he might say things that don't sound right and that it's going to be hard sometimes," says Shahara Thomas, whose four children range in age from 8 to 15.
Sue and Collin Cowley of Salt Lake City had a similar conversation with their three children, ages 10, 8 and 5, after Collin's mother Patty was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in her 50s.

"We explained on a kid level that she had a disease that was hurting her memory and making it harder and harder for her to remember things and how to do things," said Sue Cowley, whose oldest child was born about the time her mother-in-law developed the disease.

Because Fred Luckau is the pleasant, cheerful and affectionate man his family has always known, there has been little need to fill in the younger ones.

The little grandchildren simply take in stride his memory foibles -- laughing along with him when he repeats a sentence or delighting when he decides, as he did last week, to have ice cream for breakfast.

"They don't notice that as being strange," says Valerie. "To them, it's 'Hey, that is a wonderful idea.' "

Charles "Chick" and Lula Ruoti have had custody of their granddaughter, now 5, since she was about 3 months old -- long before Alzheimer's attacked Lula, 71.

"Our granddaughter accepts her for what she is," says Chick Ruoti. "Sometimes she'll say, 'Oh, grandma, you keep forgetting.' You try to talk to her [the granddaughter] and explain what's going on, but when they are her age, you're not sure whether you get through."

Read more of Brooke Adams article from the Salt Lake Tribune>>



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