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An awful disease; an awful thought

She would be better off dead.

I have thought that.

About my own mother.

God forgive me.

Oh, how a loved one’s Alzheimer’s disease messes with your mind.

Until the past year, if someone suggested that I would one day believe, even for a minute, that Thelma Jean Harasim would be better off in the grave rather than where I could visit her, I would have told him to get his head examined.

But then she came down with Alzheimer’s, the horrific condition that robs people of memory. In a very real sense, you are watching someone you love die twice. First the mind, then the body.

This is a woman I wish could live forever. She is the lady who couldn’t stop calling her friends when I made the honor roll, who sang along with Sinatra on the record player as she taught me how to dance before a prom. I still remember her laughter as she managed to pull her feet out of harm’s way.

I remember how happy — and haggard — she looked when I returned from the Vietnam War. I believed her when she said she worried so much she hadn’t slept in months. And I can’t forget how angry she was when I casually used profanity commonplace in a war zone. Just because you went to war, she said, is no excuse for forgetting how you were raised.

Not long ago, she couldn’t leave the house with a hair out of place, unless her makeup was just so. Now she forgets to use the restroom, and attendants at the facility where she lives must check her diaper.

At 88, she forgets who I am.

Years ago, mother said she would rather be dead than go through a slow, agonizing passing. Now the blank stare that becomes more of who she is each day cries out that she is helpless in this world.

Death never comes on your own terms when you have Alzheimer’s, the still incurable disease of the brain that kills brain cells, that affects some 8 million people today.

A couple of years ago, my mother, adamant about living independently, began to forget. Then really forget. A nurse that regularly visited wasn’t there when she got lost after leaving home in the middle of the night. Her screams for help brought frightened neighbors to her aid and an awareness of her need for around-the-clock care.

How relatives of those stricken with Alzheimer’s can best deal with the stress of caregiving is a matter dealt with by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. You can participate in support groups and psychotherapy sessions — all at no cost to you.

Jean Georges wishes the center had been here when she was caring for her husband. She suffered a stress-induced heart attack.

"I would have never argued with my husband," she said. "I’ve now learned that’s a golden rule for caregivers. I so regret that wasted time. His reality was different from mine through no fault of his own."

Call the Ruvo Center’s Susan Hirsch at 702-483-6023 or email her at hirschs2@ccf.org to find out how you can receive help.

I learned there are many people like me who, in their grief, think death would be an improvement over Alzheimer’s. It is normal to wonder if a life with a mind devoid of focus is worth living. It is also normal to come to realize that you must treasure all the time you and an ill relative still have together.

There remain moments of near clarity that still capture the essence of a loved one, moments you will cherish.

About six months ago, my mother, bless her heart, thought she was talking to my late father when I was with her.

"Bill," she said, "I think Paul is going to be OK. He lives in Las Vegas and I don’t think he gambles. We did something right."

Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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