Holding on to My Pets, as Alzheimer’s Takes My Memories

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My husband, Tim, and a duo of Jack Russell terriers arrived in my life 13 years ago. They were a package deal that included Osceola Jack, a champion Frisbee player who once was the Mighty Dog actor in the famous commercials, and his pup, the equally mighty Samantha.

Later our family grew with Beatrice, a sweet cattle dog mix from Florida who belonged to Tim’s brother but needed a new home.

As an introvert, I have not always had the best people skills, but my ability to connect with animals has never flagged. Many of my best memories involve animals. But now things are changing.

Last summer, at age 54, I learned I had early onset Alzheimer’s. Amid the many worries that accompany this diagnosis, I am afraid that I will lose my cherished ability to bond with — or even remember — my animal companions much longer.

Since my 20s and 30s, I’ve had some weird memory gaps. I once forgot that a childhood best friend worked for me at the school newspaper at Penn State. I wrote off these memory holes to a busy life and career. I worked long days, spent hours on airplanes and trains, managed dozens of people and grappled with complicated issues. I told myself that all of that work, stress and the sheer volume of information that I was expected to retain had to take a toll on my ability to remember everything.

But a few years ago, I started to notice that I just wasn’t performing as well as I used to. Keeping track of big projects became increasingly difficult. Skills that were sometimes challenging (simple math, remembering names, understanding maps and directions) became all but impossible. Some days my memory was so bad that I wanted to wear a shirt that said, “Sorry, I just cannot remember your name.”

My sister found an online advertisement for people concerned about memory loss. I called the phone number and scheduled an in-person screening. Bring someone familiar with you, the woman on the phone said.

I brought Tim, who stayed close as a neurologist poked and prodded me, and vials and vials of blood were drawn. And then came the memory tests.

I did fairly well remembering the details of a story. But I failed terribly on remembering a drawing. I did middling as I tried to recall a list of words and flubbed a simple subtraction test. After a short wait, the technician came back with the news that my low score on the test had, unfortunately, made me a candidate for a clinical trial.

I felt the energy in the room change, and soon I was learning of a likely diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. Up next: neurology, psychology, M.R.I. and PET scans, genetic testing and so much more. The issues we now needed to confront seemed endless and all so urgent: long-term care insurance, financial and household issues. Should I keep working or try for Social Security disability?

That is to say nothing of the fear, the anxiety, the sadness and depression as I entered the world of Alzheimer’s. How much longer would I be alive? How long would I retain the unique qualities that make me Phil? How long before my memory deteriorated to the point that I may not remember my partner, my family, my pets?

One morning, not that long ago, I emerged from my bedroom to be greeted by Max, an orange tabby cat who spends much of his time outdoors, prowling our woods. I was happy to see him home, patted him and said hello. I went back to my room, and, as Tim tells it, I re-emerged a few minutes later looking for the cat, asking Tim, “Have you seen Max yet?”

On another afternoon, I was on the hiking trail near my office and stopped to pet a dog enjoying the sun with its owner. The owner told me the dog’s name was Sadie. In the fog of my brain, all I could remember was that I once had a dog named Sadie, but I couldn’t remember when. It wasn’t until many minutes later that I remembered that Tim and I currently have a lab/pit bull rescue named Sadie.

When you live with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, you learn to live in the moment and appreciate what you still have rather than what you may lose. I have my sister, nieces and nephew and extended family. And, of course, Tim, the man who I’ve been with for 13 years and who agreed last fall to marry me even though we do not know how much longer I will be me.

And I have a turtle creatively named Turtle and a bearded dragon who goes by the name Leo. And I have my dogs and cats, as loyal and loving as ever. I have my Jack Russell named Abe who now comes to the office with me each day. I have wandering Max the cat, and a sweet soft cat named Obie whom I brought home from my office and now spend hours stroking and petting and listening to her purr.

And I have Sadie and Beatrice and Oscar, the grandson of Osceola, the Jack Russell that arrived in my life with Tim.

I know that someday I may not remember them, but that doesn’t lessen the pleasure they give me now. And the thing I know about my pets is that they will always remember me.