2009 Winner-AFA Teens for Alzheimer's Awareness College Scholarship
Emily Riber, Monroe, CT

Knock Knock: Who's There?

Come here, Pumpkin, I have a question. If a sea gull flies over the sea, what flies over the bay?
I don’t know
A bagel

I had one grandpa. However, my memories consist of two entirely different people. Before Alzheimer’s, my grandfather loved to tell jokes. He was an extraordinary man with an incredible sense of humor. The jokes he told were primarily riddles with a few knock-knocks here and there. Very silly riddles that never failed to make someone laugh, nonetheless. As the youngest child, I thought each riddle was created exclusively for me.

Sweetheart, what time should you go to the dentist?
I don’t know. When?
Around too-th hurty.

I liked that one. Grandpa could have easily been successful on the entertainment circuit as a comedian, had he not chosen to fix cars instead. My grandfather worked hard as an auto mechanic throughout his life. One day I was with my mom at the gas station as she told him about a noise that the car was making, and he said, “That’s easy to fix. Make the radio louder and you won’t hear it!” He was so funny.

My grandfather’s storytelling was legendary. As I’ve grown up, his classic stories have been repeated countless times. I remember a special story that he told about me. Grandpa recalled my attempt to make up my very own joke at the age of two. It went something like this—ME: Knock, Knock. HIM: Whose there? ME: Roast Beef! Followed immediately by my hysterical laughter. He was so proud.

Grandpa retired from his job when I started school and went to work every day with my dad. I couldn’t wait to see him, my favorite entertainer. There would most likely be another story and certainly another joke. I was sure that each time, I would have the answer to his riddle.

OK, Sweetie, what month has 28 days?
Ooh, I know this. February.
No, Silly, all of them.

At the time he was initially diagnosed with dementia, Grandpa began routinely forgetting where he placed his belongings. He paced up and down looking for numerous objects throughout the day. At first, it was difficult to determine whether or not he was being silly, trying to make me laugh. He would say, “Where are my glasses?” Before long, I realized he wasn’t kidding. “Gramps, they’re on your head!”

Grandpa’s forgetfulness gradually became more significant. Each week, another teapot was ruined as the water he’d put up evaporated and burned. Some days he would seem fine, then other times he would forget virtually everything. His memory was weird. The disease created gaps in his brain where even his immediate relatives became unfamiliar. His memory sort of froze in time somewhere in the past. Grandpa consistently called my brother Paul by my uncle’s name, Mitch. Similarly, he called Uncle Mitch by his brother’s name, Arthur. Somehow, he forgot his son grew up and when he saw his grandson, he’d call him by his son’s name. Naively, I thought the memory lapses might be temporary. Before my mother explained Alzheimer’s disease to me, I had already begun to see how it impacted the family. My brother was upset that Grandpa couldn’t remember his name. My grandma was unable to manage his care.

My grandfather no longer remembered how to get dressed and frequently made mistakes with his clothing. In mid-July he came out wearing a wool hat. The sight of him reminded me of a joke he often told in the winter:

I’m very forgetful
I think that I have water on the brain
When I go out in this weather, it freezes
And everything slips my mind…

Alzheimer’s affected more than just his memory. The disease altered his personality and his ability to function independently on a daily basis. As the disease progressed, he wasn’t able to perform the simplest activities. My grandfather couldn’t sign his name on my birthday cards any longer—his handwriting became very small. Nor could he make a phone call. He needed help with daily living, and he hardly told jokes anymore.

After Alzheimer’s, his quality of life declined and Grandpa became increasingly disabled. A typical discussion consisted of one of us repeating the topic over and over with him. For the most part, he remembered my mom and dad often and my older sister as well. During the course of a conversation one day, my mom mentioned my name to him, and he looked up and said, “Who is Emily?” My first instinct was to laugh. That’s what naturally came when we were together. But this wasn’t the same person with whom I had that relationship. Ironically, I can honestly say that I didn’t know who he was, either. I looked over at my sister and a tear ran down her cheek. I missed the grandfather I’d had before Alzheimer’s. The grandfather who would wink at me and say:

 Little one, do you know when you can put pickles in a door?
No. When?
When it’s ajar

Grandpa spent the last years of his life in a nursing home. There, on our visits, I learned about the role of social workers. I saw firsthand how their work enhanced my grandfather’s existence. The social workers provided invaluable resources for my grandfather and our family during his illness. Their help made a difference in the quality of Grandpa’s life. Consequently, I became interested in social work as a career goal. I was fourteen when he died, and this experience launched a desire to research the profession.

So - cial work (noun) work carried out by trained personnel with the aim of alleviating the conditions of those in need of help or welfare1

I love social work. The simple definition inspires me to prepare for my career at college. Social workers assist people by helping them cope with issues in their everyday lives. The social work profession connects those who face a disability or a life-threatening disease with those who have a strong desire to help improve people’s lives. And in New York City, every opportunity to serve in a complex urban environment is here. I will train to work with a wide range of populations in greatest need. Social workers provide service to clients who are often powerless and underserved. The roles of social workers address issues in the workplace, helping with problems and matching people with the resources they need to receive the health and financial benefits that are rightfully theirs. All people deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity, regardless of differences. Social workers ensure that clients have access to the services they need to lead healthy and productive lives. I am certain that social work is the ideal choice for my career. As a social worker, I can provide guidance and assistance to others who may be in similar conditions as my grandfather and my family, finding that work rewarding and meaningful.

I had only one grandpa. Undoubtedly, my grandfather bestowed a positive influence upon my life with his overwhelming love, enthusiasm and sense of humor. My memories of him before the illness are filled with laughter and admiration. Although he changed after the disease, Grandpa managed to have a profound impact on my future. As it turns out, I would not have been introduced to the social work profession had it not been for my grandfather’s disease. As I am thankful for the gifts Grandpa has given to me, I am also thankful for his social workers who improved my grandfather’s life with Alzheimer’s disease.

Knock, Knock
Who’s there?
Tank Who?
You’re welcome!

1 Oxford American Dictionary 2008


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