Marty, Jordan and Manya Honig 1987
Some of the earliest memories I have of my father are of driving with him back and forth from our home in the Colorado suburbs. He treated these long rides as an educational opportunity and while I stared out the window at the passing scenery of cul-de-sacs and strip malls, he would instruct me on all sorts of random knowledge; like how birds were perhaps the descendants of dinosaurs or how the Egyptians removed a mummy’s brain with a hook.
Outwardly, my father, Jordan Honig, was known for being charismatic, amicable and smart. A former artist turned engineer, with a few successful patents under his belt, he was well-read and a flaming liberal who followed current issues closely. An amazing cook and a true handyman, he had an odd sense of humor that was understood by few, paired with the gusto for striking up conversation with just about anyone.
He was the kind of man who befriended neighbors and became a socialite at parties, but within our family, we also knew him for his bad temper and stubbornness. His bad moods followed him for day’s like a heavy overcast and he had a way of making simple arguments explosive; once his anger had built up enough, whether over financial issues, the house or us kids, it typically resulted in him storming off with a gruff “oh fuck you”.
but these days, nearly five years after my father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, my sisters, mother and I can only recall his once dynamic personality. He is experiencing what experts describe as a “moderate to severe decline” or stage five of the seven known stages of Alzheimer’s. In just a few years we’ve watched his drastic transformation into a very different person, someone his former-self would have hardly recognized.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that like dementia and Parkinson’s causes the brain to rapidly decay before shutting down entirely. It creeps through the cerebral cortex (gray matter or outermost layer of the brain) in a predictable pattern, killing neurons and causing tissue loss as it goes—over time this actually causes the brain to shrink in size. (Alz.org/brain tour)
Alzheimer’s spreads through the brain like a virus: NYTIMES
The first region of the brain to suffer damages is often the hippocampus; a small component of the brain shaped like a seahorse that controls short and long-term memory–when my father hit this initial stage, he had trouble recalling mathematical equations, or directions home from the grocery store.
Later, as the disease advances it damages the frontal lobe that controls empathy, forward thinking, impulse and inhibition–the other week at the grocery store, I watched Jordan breake-out into a samba-esc song and dance with the shopping cart, letting out a melodic “coco” as he shuffled.
Slowly, other regions of the brain are affected, like the Parietal lobe, responsible for understanding time and facial recognition–from what I’ve observed, Jordan is aware that I am one of his daughters, but cannot tell me apart from my two sisters.
And finally, towards the very end, the brainstem, responsible for basic functions like swallowing, heart rate, seeing and hearing and sense of balance, also loses its faculty. (brain map)
Personality Changes in People with Alzheimer’s
As the disease continues advancing, different regions of the brain are compromised. This off-sets the brain’s ability to function properly and directly affects the individual’s personality. Simply put, as more regions of the brain become damaged, the personality becomes more and more distorted.
While it varies, classic examples of personality changes include loved ones who were once kind and complacent, but with Alzheimer’s become angry and argumentative. Or clean and orderly people who begin to neglect their hygiene and become messy.
Jordan Honig By Esther Honig
In my father’s case, a man who was often grumpy and stubborn- these days- is more likely to break into a smile than an argument. Instead of listening to NPR, he sings along to the easy listening station, and rather than building or fixing anything, he has a hard enough time simply turning the television on and off.
And while he no longer shares my reality, living instead in his own delusions, the bad moods and fiery temper that I had come to associate with him have all but subsided. What’s left is a happy, complacent old man. Ironically, it is perhaps the happiest I have ever known him to be.