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My Father and Alzheimers

by Doug Burgum

Published in Autumn/Fall 2004, this article appeared in Volume 59 of the BFHS Journal.

My father, John Burgum, has Alzheimer's and it is difficult to be cheerful about it. He was diagnosed with dementia several years ago and, for the past three years, my mother has worked tirelessly as a carer looking after him. Gradually my father's condition got worse, although I forget when. (Forgive my attempt at humour, but as my father got gradually worse, humour was all we had left. The occasional smile. My father still smiles, sometimes).

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and it can cause personality and behaviour changes. The unusual and unpredictable behaviours of the sufferer are challenging and can cause tension for everyone. The person is not acting this way on purpose-it's the changes in the person's brain. The probability of suffering from dementia increases with advancing age, normally occurring in the second half of our life, often after the age of 65. The frequency of dementia increases with rising age. About 5% of people above 65 years of age, about 20% of those over 80 years and about 30% of those over 90 suffer from Alzheimer's disease. People like my father, suffering from Alzheimer's, typically suffer from impaired memory and orientation, limitations of concentration, planning and judgement, personality changes and later also perceptual, speech and walking disorders. Later various other body functions such as swallowing and the excretion process are also affected. (Picture above - My father, John Burgum, sitting with my wife Fiona in 2005).

Alzheimer's is caused by the progressive destruction of nerve cells in the brain. It is a natural phenomenon to loose a certain number of nerve cells during ageing but this loss occurs much more rapidly in Alzheimer's patients. Imagine my concern then when Vicky and I were woken at 3.30 in the morning by the police. My parent's house had been burgled and they were in a right state! Could we come quickly? My parents live just a few miles away from me in the Forest of Dean. The house had been trashed. Items had been thrown recklessly out of windows. Soap powder and sugar covered the path outside. Vandals! The hi-fi lay on its side on the floor, the furniture needlessly upturned. Even a kitchen work surface had been lifted by the wreckers!

Vicky sat comforting my mother and father while I dealt with the police. My parents were naturally very upset. The police had a dog patrolling the garden, searching for a scent. Where had the thieves come from? Where had they gained entry? It took me about twenty minutes to realise something was not quite right. My mother's purse lay on the floor. Was anything else missing? Had they been disturbed; caught in the act? My father had discovered the carnage and woken my mother. She is partly deaf and had heard nothing. Had my father seen anything? He had. He had seen two men with a dog. The police dog! Did he know who I was? My father had seen me talking to the police. "You're the police inspector", he said. My father did not know my name. Did he know who the lady was sitting with Vicky? "That's my mother," he said.

Only then did it dawn on me. I then had to go to the police, still searching for clues, and explain that their number one suspect was my father. He had trashed the house. He had used exceptional force and amazing strength. Now, he admitted, his hands hurt. He was tired. However, he had no idea what he had done. My mother's distress, of course, was made worse. How could he do this? My father was now clearly dangerous. He did not know what he was doing. He was now unpredictable. He could hurt somebody. Not deliberately, he had been a gentle man, but who could predict what might happen next time?

The police finally left, having cleared up much of the mess for us. They were fantastic. My father was put to bed. I stayed, but neither my mother or I dared sleep. The next morning I had to ring up social services and arrange for my father to be placed in a secure unit. It was not difficult to get my father to leave the house. "Where is this", he asked. "I don't live here." It was a difficult and distressing morning as we came to terms with what had happened. It became apparent soon afterwards that my father would never again be allowed home. As his mind has become more confused, his frustration and anger have once again shown itself. The nurses understand and are very patient with him, but it is hard to watch. Sometimes he forgets how to use his legs and simply falls over. Often he refuses to eat. Sometimes he refuses to wear any clothes! He has lost a lot of weight and become weaker. Sometimes he even forgets who we are. Conversations can take on a surreal quality. Once after a fall, he told me how the animal had attacked him and scratched his face. (There was no scratch. There was no animal). It had happened a week ago, he told me. The fall had been the day before.

My father told me he was going to get a job.
"Building something", he said. "Building what?" I asked.
"That bloke's going to help me."
"Build what?" I asked again.
"Don't be silly," he replies.
The subject drifts to something else. Sometimes there is nothing else.

My father was born 9th September 1929. His mother Rose died in March 1970. However, his father William Whittington Burgum (Whit) was still alive at the time that I wrote the article. Whit was born 27th December 1903 making him over one hundred years old! He was still living on his own, in his own house in Canewdon, Essex (he died in 2005). Watching my father grow old so quickly was very hard. For my mother, who had been married to my father for 52 years, it was harder still. We, of course, have lots of memories of how my Dad used to be. He was not so lucky. We love you Dad. My father died in April 2007.

More about John Burgum - his lost memories.