Today marks exactly 5 years since my dad took mom to UCLA and received the dreaded diagnosis: semantic dementia. I remember it like it was yesterday; the tears in my dad's eyes as he delivered the news that night while standing in his kitchen. The struggle to understand and come to terms with what the diagnosis meant. The grief, the anger, the acceptance (still working on that one). The course of my and my family's life was altered drastically that day. The past 5 years have brought about the greatest heartbreak and deepest challenges of my life. Yet, I know that the worst is still to come.
Five years ago, I wouldn't have guessed that Mom would still be with us today. According to the pamphlet that UCLA sent home, the average duration of FTD is around 7 years (at a follow-up appointment, the UCLA doctor told us the average for semantic dementia is 12 years, though it's different for everyone). Although it's hard to know exactly when this all started for Mom, we can trace signs back as far as 2007. By late 2009, we knew there was definitely a problem. That means that, while it's been 5 years since diagnosis, Mom has been dealing with this disease for 8-10 years now.
At this point, she is in the later phases of the disease, nearing the last stage but not quite there yet. Cognitively, she is very late stage, but the final phase brings about a disconnect between body and mind; the mind stops telling the body what to do (walking, talking, swallowing, eating, etc). Mom is still ambulatory (mobile) but I believe we are starting to see swallowing issues now. I would say that a majority of the time that she eats and drinks her water, she ends up coughing on the water. She isn't completely chewing her food either. Sometimes when she coughs, she will spit out chunks of her sandwich. A few times, she has coughed so hard that she's thrown up and we've seen the same issue with her partially chewed food. Other times, remnants of her food remain in her mouth and she doesn't swallow it all. Luckily, all she eats is pb&j and that is pretty soft going down and dissolves after being in her mouth for a while. If she were eating meats or vegetables this would be much more problematic.
If I'm just being completely honest here, it's a blessing and a curse (maybe curse is too strong of a word) that she is still here with us, 5 years later. It's a blessing because we've had time to make preparations and process what is to come-although I don't know if I will ever be fully prepared for "the end". It's a blessing to be able to serve her and care for her, even though she may not understand it now; it is a growing and learning experience for all of us. This has stretched me in ways that I didn't know I could be stretched. It's a blessing because she is still here physically to hug and love on (even though she pushes us away, lol), to say I love you to, to remember. I think one of the things I fear when she's gone is that people will just forget her. The hard part with this disease dragging on is watching her suffer and lose all quality of life, watching her forget everyone around her, watching the tears as she struggles. It's hard to see my dad go through this; I know he struggles but he handles it like a champ. He doesn't ever complain about her, even when he's up 20 times a night with her (no joke!) In fact, just last night we were talking on the phone and he told me that if she wants to get up 10 times a night and fix sandwiches or look out the front door, he'll get up with her 10 times a night and he will re-tuck her into bed just as many times. "One day I will miss it," he told me. His strength, love and dedication is a great lesson to me (it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it). [He is probably going to be embarrassed that I write this, he is very humble and doesn't see himself as the inspiration that others do].
Five years goes by in a blink. I'm fairly certain that we don't have another five years with her; I'd be surprised if we have two (although I never thought we'd make it this long!) But as long as she is here, I will continue to love her and care for her to the best of my ability. Like my dad said, one day we'll miss this.
Below are pictures of her progression, from before diagnosis and then from 2010-2016.
2010- right around the time when we knew something was wrong and were seeking answers
2011-a year before diagnosis
2012- her birthday, the year she was diagnosed
2013-our last family camping trip
2014-the year of dark make-up and (later) the blue eyebrows
2015-the best picture I could get for Mother's Day
2016-taken last Mother's Day
Not quite 2017, but close enough (taken at Thanksgiving)