09/13/2012 05:40 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

Taking Care of Someone With Alzheimer's Can Take its Toll

Evelyn, one of my dad's older sisters, was truly a world-class complainer. Long before I was born, someone in the family bestowed on her the unlikely nickname, "Auntie Honey," and somehow the name stuck.

Growing up, I remember Auntie Honey harping constantly about almost everything. Her most bitter comments were about her mother -- my grandmother -- a slight, sweet, extremely religious woman who had lost her mind and didn't know where she had left it.

"She can't remember a damn thing and it's driving me crazy," Auntie Honey would rave.

Grandma has some form of dementia and she needed a lot of care. Since Auntie Honey had no children and lived just down the hill from grandma, the caregiving fell squarely on her stout shoulders. However, Auntie Honey was not a silent soldier, and made certain everyone knew all she did for her aging mother.

"She's going to out-live me!" was a common Auntie Honey refrain.

Her brothers and sisters, busy with marriage, children and work, had absolutely no idea how difficult it was to care for someone with dementia. It was easier to let their childless sister handle the burden. It couldn't be that bad, could it? Everyone rolled their eyes and chalked it up to the fact that Auntie Honey was indeed a world-class complainer.

A decade after dementia took my grandmother's mind, she died quietly in her sleep at age 89.

Nine months later, Auntie Honey was dead of a heart attack at age 65.

Now that I'm a caregiver, I have an understanding of what Auntie Honey faced all those years ago. She had little help or support for her efforts. Not much was even understood about "senility," as it was called back then, and caregivers were often overwhelmed and had no where to turn.

Today, we know the chronic stress of caregiving can take years off of someone's life. I've no doubt that this is exactly what happened to Auntie Honey. She coped the best she could and vented by complaining loudly to anyone within earshot. It was Auntie Honey's dysfunctional way of letting people know the toll it was taking on her.

When I think of my grandma and Auntie Honey, I feel sad. Sad that both of their lives were so affected by dementia. Yet I also feel determined. Determined to shine a spotlight on this horrible disease. Determined not to become a world-class complainer who is isolated and bitter. Determined not to allow dementia to shave years from my own life.

So, in Auntie Honey's memory, remember that September is World Alzheimer's Month, and do something for a caregiver to help brighten his or her day.