In my latest release, SHADA, the first book in the Ember Cole series of paranormal suspense novels, one of the underlying themes that pops up is the effect that Alzheimer's disease and dementia can have on the loved ones. Some might suggest that's a heavy topic for a novel aimed primarily at young adults.
Here's why it's not.
When I was a very young kid, I think my favorite relative outside of my immediate family was my Grandma Hensel. I loved to lay with my head in her lap as she sang ancient gospel songs and show tunes and whatever nonsense songs she made up at the spur of the moment.
My attachment as a very young kid was greater than my parents realized. I couldn't have been more than four at the oldest when it was announced one day that she was going away to spend a couple weeks with another family member. In a matter of a few days, I broke out into a rash. If I remember correctly, I even developed a case of tremors; my body actually shook from her absence.
After taking me into the doctor and finding nothing physically wrong with me, my folks reluctantly called their relatives Grandma was staying with and asked if she could come home early. Like Ember in my story, SHADA, we lived right across the street from my Grandma Hensel, so I was used to being able to cross the street and visit her whenever I wanted.
A few hours later, Grandma Hensel was back.
She took her place at the table, was served a hot cup of coffee with some milk and sugar, and took me right into her lap and started singing to me. The tremors subsided immediately. Within a couple hours, the hives were gone. It was weird, and caused some waves with the relatives she'd been visiting, but that's how it happened.
The intensity of my early-years attachment to my Grandma Hensel eased over time, as these things often do. But because of it, perhaps it was a mercy that we lost her gradually, over a matter of years, to the insidious combination of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
The early signs were easy to miss. She'd call me Walter, the name of her own son. The mixing up of names, the gentle and momentarily and easily-hidden confusion, were all early elements.
Over time, the confusion mounted. She started talking about ghosts in her attic. Later, that changed to a story about a young Mexican man who was hiding out in her attic, stealing her food while she was sleeping.
Eventually, my mother grew concerned enough that she started paying closer attention. She realized Grandma Hensel was mixing up her medications, and had been doing it so badly she needed to be hospitalized. Once she stabilized, she was moved from a hospital to a nursing home, but her mind was never the same after that.
Like Ember's grandmother, Grandma Hensel reached a point where she accused nursing home workers of sneaking in at night and stealing her money, even though she had no cash on hand at that point in her life. She'd play out scenes from her past with whoever was available, usually casting me as either Walter or Gerald or Kenny, all sons of hers. The visits when she'd recognize me as me became fewer and fewer, and the desire to visit her decreased as her confusion increased.
Eventually, Grandma Hensel passed after lingering in that nursing home for close to a decade. And the lot across from our where her house once stood was taken down by the buyer, leveled and left vacant to this day. Now, the only thing remaining to remind me of her presence in my life is a small, modest headstone on her grave. And, of course, my memories. The point is, Alzheimer's disease and dementia are not issues that young people are shielded from in life. If they have grandparents, if they know a few people over the age of seventy, they've probably run into it.
The effects can range from seeming like your loved one is teasing or making a joke, all the way to seeming scary and taking away a young person's desire to spend time with their elders. And while not everyone who is elderly gets these afflictions, experts who know a lot more than I do say that there are 4.5 million cases of Alzheimer's in the US as of 2004, affecting 19 million family members. Among those over the age of 65, ten percent have Alzheimer's. Among those over the age of 85, that number rises to nearly fifty percent. (Those figures come from the Alzheimer's Association and ADEAR.)
So, it's something many young people with older grandparents and great-grandparents are likely to run into. In other words, it's relevant.
Now, don't misunderstand. SHADA is not a boring medical text, or an ABC Afterschool Special on Alzheimer's and dementia. It's a background element of a much broader story that is full of paranormal fun and adventure. But it is a motivating element that drives Shada, Ember, Jeni, and Willow to go camping, hold a séance, and seek answers from among the dead. Some people might read the relevant portions of SHADA and assume I'm making light of Alzheimer's and dementia. Hopefully, now you know that is not the case.
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.