Journalist of the Year Portfolio

Fading away

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At first, it’s the small things. Not remembering the store clerk’s name. Where they placed their keys. Forgetting they’d already purchased paper towels. 

Then, it’s the bigger things—things that make them forget who they are. The faces of friends and family. Where they live. Then, it’s languages and births, marriages and deaths. 

It keeps getting more and more pronounced—until that day they are told they have Alzhiemer’s disease. From this point on, it doesn’t get better. It won’t get better. The forgetfulness progresses into a maze of unknowns. 

Soon, the world becomes an unfamiliar and hostile place. Any person who enters their world is a stranger—another stray piece in their scattered puzzle of life.

Students and families here are devoting their entire lives to loved ones with Alzheimer’s—helping them put on their clothes, brushing their teeth and hair, giving care 24 hours a day, doing whatever they can to give some degree of comfort. 

Whether they’re open about it or not, that student sitting next to you, that teacher you pass in the hallway or that coach urging you on from the sidelines may be going home and giving loving care to someone with Alzheimer’s. 

Even if that someone can’t love them back.

'CHERISH EVERY MOMENT' — FOR JUNIOR TUCKER RIBMAN, IT'S ABOUT APPRECIATING ALL THE TIMES WITH HIS GRANDFATHER

For junior Tucker Ribman, Alzheimer’s came crawling into his life, slowly but quickly turning one of the brightest people he knew into a shell of his former self.

Once a brilliant engineer, Ribman’s grandfather, Hal Ahlberg, is one of five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s.

“We saw a steady decline in his mental health,” Ribman said. “So we took him to the doctor, and they diagnosed him. It was about two years ago, maybe longer. At the time, I didn’t really know what it meant. I knew old people lose their mental adeptness, but I didn’t know it had a name like that. He was one of the smartest people I ever knew. To see him have such a fast decline was pretty shocking and sad.”

Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease, acts by interrupting normal cell interactions in the brain, causing brain function to deteriorate rapidly. Ahlberg, once a healthy, adventurous grandfather, now lives in an intensive 24-hour care facility.

“I used to spend a lot of time with him and go to Africa with him,” Ribman said. “That was one of the things that we did together. He used to make these solo trips to Africa not too long ago, maybe three of four years ago, by himself which takes a lot of skill, but within the past couple years, he doesn’t even know where he’s living anymore.”

Ahlberg came from humble beginnings, growing up in the deep South on the Mississippi River. An intelligent guy with a strong work ethic, he was the first person in his family to attend college.

“He was just a genius guy, off-the-charts IQ,” Ribman said. “He was kind of a role model in our family. He started his own company and got the ball rolling for our family. He was an engineer—tested materials for some companies—and sold his company a while ago.”

Looking back at the past few years, Ribman reminisces about certain memories with his grandfather: going on a safari in Africa—“one of his [Ahlberg’s] passions growing up”—conversing with him in their family home—but more importantly, Ribman has picked up many important life lessons from his grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s.

“We’ve learned to not take people for granted,” Ribman said, “and just make the most of everybody while they’re still well. It’s important to cherish every moment with your family. I try to show as much support as I can because no matter how hard it is on us, it’s probably ten times harder on them.”

A FOOL'S PARADISE — FAMILY OF SOPHOMORE ADNAN KHAN DETERMINED TO CARE FOR BELOVED GRANDMOTHER AT THEIR HOME

It didn’t hit him until he saw the front door wide open one weekend.

He rushed out of the house and looked across the front lawn.

Nothing.

Arif Khan, father of sophomore Adnan Khan, hopped in his car and crossed Hillcrest Road to look for his mom, Meera Khan.

He turned the corner and saw her standing confused in the middle of the road as cars weaved to avoid hitting her.

That’s when it hit him—Arif realized the family was “living in a fool’s paradise.”

None of the inappropriate answers to questions or signs of memory loss had told them her condition was this bad.

But in the middle of Hillcrest Road it was all too clear—Meera’s Alzheimer’s was worse than they had thought.

When Arif brought his mom back to the safety of their home, life for the Khan family changed.

“We changed all the knobs in the house, got locks put in, and we realized that, yeah, she’s missed a lot of stuff over the year or two,” Arif said. “You know, there was this symptom and that symptom and we just didn’t realize it. We took all the precautions, and because it’s a progressive condition, it only deteriorated from there.”

Today, Meera has been living with Adnan’s family for over eight years. When she initially moved from India to Dallas, she was able to recognize people, go to dinner with the family and even travel on the occasional family vacation.

But today she can’t have a conversation. She rarely leaves her bed. She’s unsteady and insecure. She needs help with anything she does and needs someone with her 24/7 to make sure an accident can’t happen.

“Essentially, you’re dealing with another toddler,” Arif said. “That’s what it is in the late stages.”

When Adnan was a kid, he used to ask his mom, Yasmin Khan, for her phone to make videos with his grandma.

“We’d have a lot of fun and even though I knew she had Alzheimer’s she was still able to just be a fun person,” Adnan said. “She’s just great. I mean, sometimes she would have a little mood swing here and there, but it really sucks that she’s just gone—that there’s a person there but there really there isn’t.”

But taking care of his grandma everyday has given Adnan the inspiration and skills needed to start volunteering every Saturday at Brookdale Hospice Care Center, working with a woman with dementia, Katie Smith.

Even though Adnan’s parents agree that, with Meera’s Alzheimer’s, they “have lost a whole human being,” Arif is still determined to give her care everyday.

“We have decided that she is going to be with us until the end,” Arif said. “Most people at this stage would go to a memory care or a nursing home, but she was a single parent. She brought us up. We were two boys, and I think that this is the least I can do for my mom. I think it is more of a privilege that I am able to look after her and take care of her in her most vulnerable stage in her life.”

TWO LADIES AND A TOYOTA — TRAINER DOC BROWNING STILL FINDS JOY WITH 'MAMA'

Athletic Trainer Doc Browning has come to terms with the state of his mother and her dementia. “Mama,” as he refers to her, is 97 years old and lives in assisted living as her illness has progressed to calling 63 year old Browning as little ten year old Bobby. 

“My little saying about her is, ‘She never knows where she is, but she’s happy to be there,’” Browning said. “My mother has been very sweet and happy in her spirit with her dementia. A lot of people when they get dementia get very mean spirited and paranoid. That has not been my mother.”

While Browning says he is fortunate for his mother’s happy disposition, he struggled with adjusting to the new person his mother has become as the illness progressed.

“It’s hard to see your parent be so confused,” Browning said. “It’s hard to watch the deterioration. That’s a piece of it, just being able to process the fact that they are not really your parent anymore in some ways.”

After coming to terms with the deterioration of his mother, Browning was able to find happy moments in this time despite the situation. 

“There have been some funny moments with this,” Browning said. “With dementia in particular there is a lot of sadness to it, but there is also humor in it, some joy in it.”

As Browning said this, a smile tugged at his lips, and he began chuckling to himself as he told a story of two old ladies and a Toyota.

“Mama had a 107 year old next door neighbor named Hazel in the next apartment over,” Browning said. “Her mind was sharp as a tack. Hazel decided she wanted to go out driving with Mama. Here’s 93 year old mama with dementia out driving with a 107 year old Hazel. I’m sure Hazel was telling Mama where to go.”

Browning’s smile continued to broaden as he pictured his mother and Hazel cruising the streets.

“There’s no way with my mama’s mind that she would have remembered how to get back,” Browning said. “Could you imagine these two little old ladies out driving around in Mama’s little old Toyota? That had to be something to see.”

This story took place in 2014. Browning’s mother can no longer drive a car or even walk. With a recent contraction of pneumonia, Browning has come to accept the possibility of his mother’s death.

“It’ll be a blessing when mama dies,” Browning said. “That’s been a hard thing for me to struggle with. You don’t want your parents to suffer. I don’t want to see her like this. She’s not herself anymore. She can’t take care of herself. She’s just lost. It would be wrong for me to want to keep my mother around a lot longer.”

Through his mother’s disease, Browning has reflected on what made his mother special to him—and now, he tries to live his life with the same kindness she gave others.

“I love my mother so much,” Browning said. “My mother was an angel of mercy to the dying. There are probably about 20 family friends, relatives, members of her church that my mother was instrumental in the end of life care for them. That makes it hard for me because I feel like my mother was there for all of these people, and I don’t know that I’ll be there for her when she dies. I will always carry with me the kindness of my mother.”

THE MATRIARCH — JUNIOR AVERY PEARSON LOOKS FOR WAYS TO HELP GRANDMOTHER

The signs were there all along. Katie Riddle, mother to Tosha Pearson and grandmother to junior Avery Pearson, loved to sing and recite poems, often rattling off many from memory. 

Known as “LuLu” to her family, she is known for her humor, love and passion—as well as for making “the best potato salad.” 

However, to Tosha, her mother’s behavior before her Alzheimer’s diagnosis made the realization more obvious in retrospect. 

“She was very forgetful and she would do repetitive things,” Tosha said. “She would misplace things a lot, and she would spend countless hours looking for a piece of paper that should’ve been easy to retrieve. ” 

Tosha wasn’t shocked to hear the diagnosis—as a nurse, she’s seen many of the same symptoms in the Alzheimer’s patients at her hospital.

Additionally, being that her mother was 88 years old at the time, she recognized it was “just a part of the process.” 

However, despite the diagnosis, her mother continues to help around as much as she can. 

“She likes to stay busy,” Tosha said, “so she folds clothes and washes dishes, because she wants to contribute to the family. She’s still a very pleasant person to be around.” 

Tosha’s brother, Charlie Riddle, is her mother’s primary caregiver, accompanying Katie nearly every waking hour. 

According to Tosha, this continued commitment makes her mother feel at home, and that’s what’s most important.

 “[Charlie] made the agreement [to care for my mother] with my dad when he was sick and passing away, and my dad was comfortable knowing my mom was with him,” Tosha said. “My brother has a set up in the house to help her out. It just works out that way, and she’s comfortable there.”

When Tosha first broke the news of her mother’s condition to the rest of the family, most were in denial, saying “no, no, no, mama’s okay.” 

Avery’s reaction was different—he recognized the symptoms, but the diagnosis didn’t match the “LuLu” he remembered. 

“I was confused, because she had a great memory of so many things,” Avery said. “She knew a lot of songs and poems, and she still knows some of those today, but it was more short-term memory that she would forget in an instant.”

On a few nights earlier in the year, Avery and his sister, Gabria, took care of their grandmother themselves. 

During those nights, Avery threw pressing homework aside and accompanied his grandmother—learning new things about her along the way. 

“Me and Bria wanted to go get food,” Avery said. “Bria said she wanted to get a hamburger, and my grandmother said the same thing. My mom told me later that my grandmother wanted to be like us. She wanted to be kid-like and share moments with my sister and I.”

After the death of her husband in late 2016, Katie set the goal of reuniting with her brother and sister—a goal that, according to Tasha, signifies peace and reassurance for Katie, something that is needed now more than ever. 

“She’s made mention that she wants to visit her brother and her sister, who are still living,” Tosha said. “Once she’s done that, she’ll be at peace and be happy. She’s aware that time is winding up for her, so I know that in the back of her mind she still wants to take that trip to go see her brother and her sister. Those are our next plans. We’re just taking it one day at a time.”