Alzheimer's Disease: A Story of Love and Loss

Photo: Moran story on Alzheimer?s

Ten years after her death, it is my mother's needlework now that calls me back to her prime, to her grace, and helps me hear once again the sound of her laughter.

She had a fine hand with a needle, as they used to say. Pillowcases and canvasses, wall-hangings and purses, abstract, figurative, decorative -- so much craft and loveliness spun from her fingers as she sat under the lamplight, her glasses perched on the end of her nose, her feet tucked under her on the sofa, as the conversation of her family -- a husband of 36 years, ten children -- carried on around her.

Without missing a stitch, she'd join the conversation, offering an opinion, or sometimes a line of poetry (the Brownings were favorites). And sometimes, the steady, intricate minuet of needle and thread would cease, she'd drop her hands into her lap, throw her head back and laugh. She had a wonderful sense of humor, my mother, a rich, almost fatalistic, appreciation of life's occasional absurdities. I miss her so much.

We hardly noticed it at first. She'd stop in her needlepoint, look at her work in surprise, and say, "Where was I?" And then she'd count her way back into her place and carry on.

The interruptions grew more frequent. The counting became harder. And all that was left in her lap, under the blank gaze of Alzheimer's, was a canvass ragged with confusion, streaming threads like spilled paint or weeds grown up to choke a rose garden. The minuet stumbled, slowed, ended.

What Alzheimer's takes from a person is so precious, so profound -- it just flat breaks your heart. And yet, it is in that loss, in that suffering, that we find our calling in this cause. And I believe we find a paradoxical gift as well.

But first, let's recall for a moment the sheer scale of what we're dealing with here. More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer's today. It is a disease that primarily strikes the old among us -- though more than 500,000 Americans with Alzheimer's and dementia were diagnosed before the age of 65.

This is one of the greatest global public-health challenges of our time. And that is why it's time to fight, to break out of the surrender that has surrounded this disease for far too long.

Racing to Find a Cure For Alzheimer's

Because there is hope. There's always hope -- we're human, that's what we do. We hope. After years of research that has sometimes seemed to be frustratingly slow, glimmers of real advances against this disease can be seen. The underpinnings and causes of Alzheimer's are beginning to be grasped. Diagnosis is improving, and can be made at earlier stages. Treatment research is proceeding by leaps and bounds -- there are more than 100 drugs being tested right now, and some scientists are even looking into the possibility of an Alzheimer's vaccine. These are exciting times in this cause.

On "Nightline," we profiled Rich Smith and his wife of 17 years, Sherry. Rich is 57, and living with Alzheimer's. After the initial shock of the diagnosis, Rich and Sherry decided to act -- to do something to fight this disease, for themselves, and for all of us.

So they decided together that Rich would volunteer for a cutting-edge clinical trial at Georgetown University Hospital: the first gene therapy for Alzheimer's.

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