THE BLOG
03/25/2013 03:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

Alzheimer's Up Close and Personal

I know her well. I see my neighbor almost every day. Yet when I wanted to introduce her to a friend, I could not think of her name, and it was not until hours later that it came to me.

That's not the first time for such an embarrassing lapse of memory. It hasn't happened a lot -- just enough to be worrisome. Just enough to give me that sudden chill that comes with the thought -- the possibility -- of Alzheimer's disease.

And, adding to the frustration of that experience, is something else that is occurring more frequently of late. I can walk from one room to another, and once there, find myself at a loss as to why I made the trip.

The latest episode prompted today's online look at Alzheimer's disease. My search confirmed what I already knew -- that there is a significant difference between Alzheimer's and occasional forgetfulness.

The Alzheimer's Association's checklist of 10 warning signs seems not to apply to me.

Still, I am troubled by the reminder of just how serious a national health concern Alzheimer's disease has become. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and according to the March issue of Life Extension Magazine, another American develops Alzheimer's every 68 seconds. By 2050, that incidence rate is expected to double.

Currently, one out of every two Americans over 85 will develop the debilitating disease. There is, as yet, no cure. And it is an equal opportunity killer that has no respect for fame or fortune.

It struck a president, Ronald Reagan, in the waning days of his presidency. It brought about the early retirement of Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, whose husband was suffering with Alzheimer's. And it has recently taken down icons such as Hall of Fame basketball coach, Pat Summit, and singer Glen Campbell.

But the sadness that comes from learning Alzheimer's has silenced one of the greats among us can not compare to the emotions felt from seeing Alzheimer's up close and personal. This must be especially true for a caregiver who witnesses the ravages of the disease firsthand.

I can not begin to imagine the heartache that must be part of a caregiver's day -- and night. I have never been a caregiver, but I know how affected I have been from just knowing peope with Alzheimer's.

Two of my high school classmates, who married half a century ago, are now victims of Alzheimer's. He has developed the debilatating disease, and she has become his caregiver.

A lady I met when I moved into my current residence three years ago -- a fun person with personality plus -- is now in a nursing home, no longer able to care for herself. Seeing her go down hill on a daily basis, as she began to lose her memory, and that wonderful personality, was hard to handle.

But the most affected I have ever felt from seeing Alzheimer's up close came from a chance meeting with a barber. For the sake of privacy, his name is withheld. I was with this man on just two occasions, and then only briefly, but those two visits taught me more about Alzheimer's than any online search.

Late summer, 2009, I was passing through Billings, Montana, and my time between buses allowed for a much-needed haircut. I followed directions to the closest barber shop -- only to find it closed.

The shopkeeper next door had words of warning, saying that since being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the barber's work was not the same, and he was no longer keeping regular hours. As we talked on the sidewalk, however, the barber did show up and unlocked the door. I declined his invitation to enter, and I hurried, instead, back the way I had come.

All that day I thought about the barber and what he must have been going through. On the bus ride out of Montana, I decided to put off getting a haircut until my next trip to Billings a couple of weeks later.

On that next visit -- another lengthy layover -- I headed back to the same barber shop. I was a litttle nervous because I was there for more than a haircut. I was looking for conversation.

My first encounter with the barber had prompted me to write an article about Alzheimer's, and I was planning to follow up with another -- one that would shed more light on what those afflicted with the disease go through.

Feeling that discussion of a life-altering problem like Alzheimer's might be too painful, I intended to ask no prying questions. I was hoping to hear the barber's story -- whatever he chose to tell me -- without offending or embarrassing him. I soon found that he welcomed a good listener.

We covered a lot of ground during a long back and forth, while I was getting what turned out to be an excellent haircut. Something noticeable, however, was his skipping mid-sentence from one subject to another, and the timing of the events he brought up. I did ask if he had family, and his "yes" was followed by words of worry about his family's concern over "some problems" he was having.

I had been wondering how soon the loss of memory and skill would force the barber into a shadowy early retirement, and that question was answered as I left the barber chair. I was ushered into a back room and handed a calendar for 2010 -- which was still some four months away.

My barber explained that he always gave out calendars to customers at Christmas time, but thought that this year he had best do it earlier.

There are more than five million people across America who share the fate of my barber friend -- losing first their memories, and then their personalities, and finally their lives.

There is a desperate need for research, to find a way to prevent and/or cure Alzheimer's disease. But research requires money -- a lot of money. President Obama increased spending for Alzheimer's research in the budget he submitted last year, but the Congressional call for reduced spending, plus the drastic effect of the sequester, puts in doubt the prospects for significant funding.

At present, a debate rages on another front -- whether or not to close tax loopholes enjoyed by the super rich. If lawmakers were to close those loopholes, some of the revenue derived could potentially go to Alzheimer's research.

Any lawmaker who opposes such action must surely have never seen Alzheimer's up close and personal.