On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s: Greg O’Brian
Imagine an ice sculpture so perfectly frozen placed in the sun. Slowly over time it melts and all that’s left is a cold liquid. Take a match and light it. Place the small flame on a piece of paper and watch the flame engulf the paper turning it into ash. Imagine being able to walk into a store and purchase anything you want and the next time not remembering what you bought. A reporter’s mind is sharp, filled with facts, important details and is able to decipher and discern information. What happens when that mind no longer functions the same way? What happens when the spark begins to fade and all that’s left is a dim flicker? What happens when your fate is no longer in your hands the outcome is early-on-set Alzheimer’s which is a death sentence in slow motion? What happens when you hear these words and you refuse to process what you now know is the reason for your memory lapses, your articulation problems and your ability to function and process information at times? Some would give up and call it a day while others fight back and will not allow this deadly illness to win. On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s is Greg O’Brien’s way of letting the world know and Alzheimer’s too that he’s not giving up, not going to take it lying down and that although it might win in the end he’s going to fight as hard as he can in the present.
In the introduction he explains the history of the illness, how it was discovered and the stages. At first you might have increasing impairment of learning and short-term memory problems and difficulties with speech. That would be at first. As the illness progresses to the moderate state you will progressively deteriorate leading to incapacity to perform even the simplest daily functions and your short term memory will fade even more, anger or rage is strong and the inability at times to recognize familiar place and people set the stage for this part of the illness. But, incontinence often occurs and misidentifications and illusions are not uncommon. Of course the advanced stage is the one you hope never comes as you can expect a complete shutdown of “cognitive and body functions.” But, first there is much more to understand and learn as you enter the mind of someone with this dreaded illness.
The author and journalist takes readers inside his family to understand just how this illness impacted not only him but his mother too. Imagine having to take Aricept and Namenda. Imagine taking it along with your mom. As her illness progressed she became aware of little areas where her functioning was failing but never really recognized her limitations. Fighting to keep who you are is not easy as the author relates till this day. Having to come to terms with the illness, share his findings with his wife and family should help others understand why supporting the person and not allowing them to give into the disease is vital.
When reading page 10 the author shares that Dementia runs in his family and he explains that he was diagnosed five years ago in 2009. Explaining what his doctors told him and understanding that his daily routine would be Aricept, Namenda and two other drugs to help him sleep and keep him calm, reminds me of my mom who took the same things. Sad but true there is no way to combat and win but there are ways to keep alert, sharp and not allow this illness to overtake your every waking hour.
Pluto is the one planet that has been declassified to a dwarf planet and because it is so far out in the solar system with an orbit that the author relates is like his: Chaotic. So small in size “makes it sensitive to immeasurably small particles of the solar system.” Imagine being so far out in orbit you cannot find your way back in. Isolation is one thing people feel at times and frustrated when looking at someone familiar and unable to identify them. Dementia knows know age limit and the requirements do not fit a particular age bracket. You can get it as early as 40 and some even younger. The book Still Alice seems to be his guide and inspiration. Fear, the unknown, the loss of memory, lack of ability to take on new challenges are just part of what happens when this illness decides to take over your mind and ability to think. Understanding the stages and what each one entails is not easy for some to grasp or want to grasp. Sharing his childhood, his parent’s illnesses and the impact Alzheimer’s had on his mother and father’s relationship is heartfelt and heart breaking. Knowing that you too will face the same fate at some time hard to imagine yet you know it will.
Important information regarding how to tell family members, documents that need to be in place and when to take the car keys away are all shared. Not being able to remember a friend’s name at a business meeting and dealing with teams of doctors that evaluated his case including Neuropsychologist Gerald Elovtiz of the Memory Center and Dr. Conan his personal doctor each sharing their findings and points of view. When you read pages 35- 45 you will learn exactly what the author did about his illness, what they felt he was experiencing and how he dealt with the news.
Daily activities vary and at times he felt disjointed or disconnected. Learning what he felt and experienced reminded me of what my mom did too as she had her own journey with this illness for 12 years. The determination to continue his daily routine, working out at the gym, writing his reports and attending business meetings and keeping his body and mind active is just part of what Greg does to keep up the fight and not let this dreaded disease win.
As Greg realized that his mother was facing her own downhill battle as she began sticking knives into sockets, misplacing money and even using liquid soap to brush her teeth, the harsh reality that she was facing her own slow progression only add to his fears about himself. Taking Aricept together and rebonding with her was one way to keep the lines of real communication from totally fraying. But, realities set in and one event came crashing down on him as he realized that his mother could not identify her own children in a photo. That’s hard as my mom would often ask me in her later stages who I was even though she knew in her heart I was her daughter. Doctor visits, many assessments and a diagnosis that would make most chuck it in but not Greg. In the doctor’s own words: I am not sure how much longer he has in terms of being able to reliably and meaningfully provide the quality of work he put out in the past.” Who wants to hear that! But, that final visit with Dr. Marks alerted him to the fact that certain documents had to be in place, signed and different bank accounts needed someone to oversee them.
Denial is one way of dealing with a reality you prefer to not face as within Chapter 5 you hear the anger, frustration and fears that rage within the author as he signs the documents and feels he is losing control of his life. The next chapters deal with his childhood, his family, his daily routines and the rocks he feels now comprise his mind, brain and head.
A fathers voice is heard as his son reacts to the news in a way that most would not expect. When Greg thinks about this disease he questions whether his children will allow him to be their father. As the author relates it is vital and important for those with Alzheimer’s to have ties to the past, present and their family. Long-term memories are often sharper than short term as I learned with my mom.
This book brings it all back and the author’s words are heard on every page letting readers and families whose loved ones have this dreaded disease the importance of supporting each other, the person of course, allowing them to continue as normal life as possible and to remember that they are still there. Talking about the Rye Family dinner table, discussed, understanding that those with the illness need to be accepted where they are and understood. The stories he tells on pages 173-174 are quite compelling and what happens on February 4, 2010 frightening. But, the saddest pages dealt with his parent’s final moments sharing the deaths of so many of his friends and reminding everyone “Memory is everything. Without it we are nothing,” observed Eric Kandel winner of the 2000 Novel Prize for groundbreaking research on the physiology of the brain’s capacity for memory.” He further elaborates in the next three paragraphs and the author closes with many other remembrances and why some days he’s focused and others he is caught as he states in the mirror of infinity-seeing the past, confused in the present, and preparing to head to Pluto. Adding resources where you can learn more about Alzheimer’s and help raise funds, this book is a must read for anyone that has a family member with dementia, early on-set or any form of Alzheimer’s. How do you say goodbye to yourself when you are not ready to do anything but say hello: You don’t: You never give up! You keep going strong and you stay you as long as you can!
Fran Lewis: reviewer
I dedicate this review to Ruth Swerdloff my mom you lived the illness for 12 years and whose courage, strength and love of life would not let her give up!