Puzzles to Remember This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

It's hard to say exactly when it began; Alzheimer's disease and dementia sneak up slowly. I was eight the first time I realized what was happening to my great-grandmother. When my parents went out for the evening, Great-Grams was very proud because she thought she was being entrusted to baby-sit me. Meanwhile, in the next room, I was told that I was responsible for taking care of her for the evening.

Great-Grams and I had a very close relationship, perhaps because we have always taken care of each other. I felt not only love for her, but also great responsibility. She was a good, kind person but, as her disease progressed, she became more and more paranoid. I can understand that though. If nothing is ever where you remember putting it, it's easy to think someone is playing tricks on you. Many days began with happy interactions, only to disintegrate into fear and hostility in the evening, a phenomenon known as “sundowning.” Since a person with dementia has reduced sensory input, sundown, with its accompanying darkness and shadows, presents a frightening challenge.

We always tried to keep Great-Grams close by. My family knew she would not do well in a nursing home. So, when she had trouble climbing into our minivan, I made her a special step, with a handle to give her a boost. I called it the “Great-Granny Booster Step.” When she had trouble walking around stores, I attached a sturdy fold-out seat to her cane so she could rest. We took her everywhere with us, even to Hawaii when she was in her nineties.

During the last year of her life, Great-Grams spent considerable time in hospitals and nursing homes. Physically she was still strong, but by then she thought she was a child. In fact, she thought she was my sister. Every few weeks, when things seemed to be going well (even on our Hawaii trip), Great-Grams would suddenly become agitated and fearful. She'd run off and tell random people that she needed help because we were trying to kill her. Sadly, this usually resulted in her being escorted to the nearest hospital psych ward, by which time she had forgotten what she had said and didn't understand why she was there. Meanwhile, I became more and more familiar with geriatric and dementia units in various hospitals and nursing facilities.

One day, a wonderful psychiatrist told me that most individuals with Alzheimer's disease or dementia do best when they can live with their families. Typically, families don't mind taking up the slack when their loved one can't remember well. Families are quick to provide support and love. The problem comes when these patients begin to display behavioral problems. Patients with dementia are easily agitated. They can even become hostile and have trouble relaxing.

One day, during a visit to a geriatric dementia ward, I noticed some patients sitting quietly, working on jigsaw puzzles. When I got home, I looked into this and discovered to my amazement that doing puzzles can actually delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. It can slow the progress of these diseases and provide much needed moments of calm.

When I was 10, Great-Grams passed away. She never knew that she left me with an experience that would affect my life and the lives of many others. About a year after her death, I founded PuzzlesToRemember (www.PuzzlesToRemember.org), a nonprofit charity that donates puzzles to facilities that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients. I have collected close to 2,000 puzzles and distributed them to over 85 facilities across five states and Toronto, Canada.

I have received many letters of appreciation explaining how helpful these puzzles were to patients in these facilities. I also give motivational talks at rotary clubs and schools. In 2010, over 500 students will help me collect puzzles.

My goal for this year is to collect an additional 2,000 puzzles and send them to facilities nationwide that care for veterans with Alzheimer's or dementia. I spend a lot of time researching grant opportunities to help cover the cost of shipping the puzzles to where they are sorely needed.

I plan to make helping Alzheimer's and dementia patients my life's work. I also hope to become a geriatric psychiatrist so that I can help them directly. Meanwhile, I will provide any support I can to make their lives just a little more tolerable.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the December 2010 Teen Ink Community Service Contest.






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rachelnicole1257 said...
Jan. 1, 2011 at 8:42 pm
I'm really sorry about your great-grandma, but I think that what you're doing is great. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three months ago, and it's comforting to know that I'm not the only person going through this.
 
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