Today there are more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease and approximately 1.8 million Latinos caring for loved ones with Alzheimer's, dementia, or a related mental condition. As many of us rush to pick out ties and tool sets to make father's day extra special for our dads, my thoughts turn to those struggling to celebrate and honor their fathers living with - and dying of - Alzheimer's. LatinosAgainstAlzheimer's, a network of USAgainstAlzheimer's, works to bring Alzheimer's disease out of the shadows in the Latino community where stigma and misunderstanding stand in the way of diagnosis and advocacy. To advance this effort and in honor of those caring for fathers struggling with dementia, I wanted to share a story by one advocate that reminds us that even in the face of a devastating disease like Alzheimer's, familia es familia. Family is family.
My Best Friend Has Alzheimer's, By Lisette Carbajal
My dad is 68 years old. Growing up in Peru, he didn't own a pair of shoes or a bed. He worked all his life and didn't have the luxury of an education. My grandmother wasn't able to feed her five children, so it was up to my dad to find whatever he could, even if it meant just a small loaf of bread to bring home. Some days he ate, but other days he did not.
I love to look through pictures of my dad when he was a young man. Despite the hardships he faced, he was always building, fixing, or painting something. He never sat still and was always willing to lend a hand. He loved my mother and when he came to the United States he worked hard to save up to buy their first home.
My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in my third year of college. At first, I was in denial about the situation and believed that one day he would wake up to be "normal" again. I read numerous articles about what to expect and how to deal with the disease, as well as countless blogs by others in the same situation who have taken care of their parents and grandparents. I find comfort in knowing that I'm not alone, but I've found that reading about Alzheimer's is very different than actually witnessing it.
I have so many loving memories of my dad. Thanks to him I know how to swim, ride a bike, drive, and braid my hair. He was my best friend as a child. Every weekend, he would take me on a bike ride, to a waterpark, or out for ice cream. He never failed to scratch my head till I fell asleep or run from work during his breaks to make me breakfast in the morning. I still watch home movies from that time.
Today, things are a little different. My dad's humor is often hidden behind the long naps and mood swings. There's no more swimming or long bike rides around the neighborhood, instead there are long, blank stares out the window and repetitive questions. There are days he doesn't know where the bathroom is or how to dress himself. In public, people stare at him as he struggles with the motions of everyday life. Some people laugh, while others ask if they can help.
The reason I write this is because I want the world to know how remarkable my dad is. He came from nothing but somehow he and my mother were able to provide my me and my brother with everything we could ever ask for. While the next couple of years will be the hardest ones for my family, and especially my mother, I plan to be there every day. I will be there even when he doesn't remember my birthday or my name. I plan to be there for him as he was for me when I fell off my bike or when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. When I look at him, I still see the man that taught me everything I needed to know about growing up and being strong. Thanks for being my best friend, dad.
Lisette Carbajal is a Policy and Community Outreach Analyst in the Office of Governor Terence R. McAuliffe of Virginia.