The elevators in the nursing home are remarkably ornate.
The red velvet carpet reflects off of the golden handrail, then off the full size mirror against the back wall, casting the elevator in an orange glow. A warm hum radiates from within as the passengers ascend to the second floor.
There’s a pleasant chime signaling the end of the trip, and it feels more like a Manhattan hotel than a nursing home.
And then the doors open.
Visitors must enter and exit the ward through a set of double doors equipped with an alarm system, in case any residents slip away from the workers and wander off. The small corridors are filled with people, mostly elderly.
Some walk around, seemingly purposelessly, muttering incoherent phrases. Others sit in wheelchairs, mouth half open, gazing listlessly at each other, or at the wallpaper, or at nothing at all.
The rest lie in bed, sleeping or studying the patterns on the ceilings.
It smells faintly like urine and disinfectant.
Katie Lawlor has never been to this particular nursing home, but she paints a similarly eerie image when recalling visiting her grandmother at another.
“Everything was in such an order that it almost looked fake, like props,” she said. “It didn’t look like she was at home. It didn’t look like she was comfortable.”
Lawlor, a junior business major, lost both grandparents to Alzheimer’s Disease, a type of neurodegenerative illness that causes brain cells to die at an accelerated rate. Its repercussions are being recognized for all of September as part of World Dementia Awareness Month.
Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Association, essentially strips its victims of their memory, sometimes short-term, sometimes long-term, but always exponentially.
“These problems all occur in the hippocampus, one of the learning centers of the brain,” Associate Professor of Psychology Ed Schicatano said. “We see things like aphasias, or language disorders. An Alzheimer’s patient will have difficulty producing and understanding words. We also see problems recognizing objects…facial recognition is wiped out also. It’s a memory loss that hits every type of memory there is.”
On paper, it may seem like just an unfortunate consequence of aging. But in practice, in the real world, it can be devastating.
Lawlor recalled, as a 6 year old , visiting her grandfather in a nursing home. She was taken out to use the restroom, and shortly after, he had an episode.
“I could hear him yelling. My dad and uncles were trying to talk to him, and he was trying to fight them, because he didn’t know who they were,” she said.
“I’d never seen my pop like that…he was always this big, gentle giant of a man, and it was scary. It’s like they’re a completely different person, because they’re so scared in their own head.”
Schicatano said that there is little known about the disease, such as if it is directly linked to genetics, or what exactly causes it.
There is also no known cure.
Schicatano did state, however, a few different things professionals believe may help prevent the disease, such as taking anti-inflammatories like baby aspirin, or by consuming antioxidants such as blueberries or red wine.
Additionally, Schicatano considers himself a supporter of the “use it or lose it” concept, stressing the importance of “thinking deeply and strengthening neural networks.”
Lawlor also has advice to give from her experiences.
“It definitely makes you value what you have now,” she said. “You learn to really value every moment that you can think of, every memory… because you think ‘one day, I may not have this.’”
To learn more about Alzheimer’s Disease, readers can go to www.alz.org.