The House on Beartown Road

Coping with Alzheimer's

A father's Alzheimer's brought sadness, humour
author - Jamie Komarnicki The StarPhoenix

January 15, 2005

A snowstorm was blowing outside Elizabeth Cohen's Binghamton, N.Y., farmhouse, there was no electricity or heat, and the phone was out. And her father, suffering from middle stage Alzheimer's disease, was lost.

"That was my hardest moment. I couldn't leave my baby alone inside the house and go out and find him," said the author, "I just felt trapped."

To her relief, eventually her father came back to the house, but that was only one of the episodes Cohen faced when in 1999, she found herself a single mother caring for a new baby and an elderly father suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The diary she kept of that period in her life became the pages of her memoir, The House on Beartown Road.

"The theme of the book is about learning and forgetting," Cohen said in an interview Friday before she spoke at an Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan luncheon. "My baby and my dad grew increasingly similar. She was learning how to walk and talk and eat and do all the things you do in life, and he was simultaneously forgetting all the same things."

And Cohen found herself caught in the middle of this convergence of minds. The same day she taught her daughter Ava to say her name, she had to remind her father his name.

Cohen said she was heartbroken to witness the changes in her father, once a professor and a writer.

"He didn't have any idea who I was, and he was my dad," she said. But as she recorded her daily struggles and triumphs, the author said she also found humour through the sadness, and discovered the beauty in her experience.

"I think it's a story of survival, through weather, through emotional distress, through disease, just getting through things," she said of the book, "I think people should feel empowered by it, that they can do the things they need to do."

The book is a message for other families affected by Alzheimer's disease that things will be OK, said Cohen, "It just helps people with Alzheimer's disease in their family, that's the bottom line, because they can laugh, they can cry, they can see me fall apart, and they can feel a little bit less alone."

January is Alzheimer awareness month across Canada. The local association will hold a Forget-Me-Not Walk in Saskatoon on Jan. 30 to raise funds for its programs and services.

Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, is a degenerative disease that destroys vital brain cells, causing memory problems, changes in judgment and difficulty with even the most familiar of tasks.

There is no known cause or cure, but recent advancements include earlier diagnosis and treatments to ease symptoms and improve quality of life.

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