The official description is bleak: Alzheimer’s is a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to waste away and die. But Eugenia Zuckerman, who has been diagnosed with the disorder, sees it another way. In her memoir about coping with the dreaded condition, she compares the experience to falling through a cloud.
Internationally known as a flutist and a writer, Ms. Zuckerman is also known to “Sunday Morning” viewers through her work as a CBS arts correspondent for more than 25 years. In her recently published book, “Like Falling Through a Cloud,” she tries to capture the experience of losing herself to Alzheimer’s through poetry and short prose pieces.
There are times when she feels lost and alone waking up in the dark. When that happens, she says she lets “the night spirits wrap around me” and reminds herself not to think. “You will remember…” she reassures herself.
And then she falls through that cloud to land safely on earth: “I AM HERE,” she proclaims.
The fabric of her mental tapestry is frayed, but somehow she can find her way back to sixth grade, when members of the local orchestra came to her school. She heard the flute and recalls being “enchanted.”
The experience was transformative; Eugenia established a lifelong passion for playing the flute. That connection continues, even as her mental faculties diminish. “…It still is OK most of the time but not always because getting old makes playing it harder,” she confesses.
“When I go onto a stage now, I worry about messing up and especially now that I might be losing my cognitive function, but what I’m hoping is that my brain will remember where my fingers go,” she explains.
On the Acknowledgements page of her book, she lauds the many friends and family who have provided sanctuary in the upside-down world of Alzheimer’s disease. She has the means and influence to rely on a physician and others “who pushed me through the clouds to find the clarity I needed.”
Not all those dealing with Alzheimer’s have Ms. Zuckerman’s good fortune. In Kentucky, however, we have University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging (SBCoA), where basic and clinical scientists work together to improve the health of the elderly in Kentucky and beyond, through research dedicated to understanding the aging process and age-related brain diseases, education, outreach and clinical programs that promote healthy brain aging.
Over the past three decades, SBCoA has emerged as one of the nation’s leading centers on aging, with major focuses on basic and applied research in Alzheimer’s disease and related neurodegenerative disorders.
Local participants in a recent telehealth clinic sponsored by SBCoA learned what to expect during the different stages of Alzheimer’s from four health care professionals. Dozens of people from far-flung communities – including Hazard, Mount Sterling, Rockcastle, Paducah and Murray – learned important facts and figures, including age as the number one risk factor for developing dementia. Women, more than men, are particularly susceptible, partially because they live longer.
The audience became acquainted with a variety of classes of dementia, including some that involve physical symptoms, like Parkinson’s and Lewey Body Dementia. For caregivers, telehealth sessions like those from SBCoA are helpful vehicles for facilitating aging in place.
According to Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. Surgeon General and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director, “Alzheimer’s is the most under-recognized threat to public health in the 21st century.”
In Fiscal Year 2020, Congress funded the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act, creating a public health infrastructure across the country to implement effective Alzheimer’s interventions focused on increasing early detection and diagnosis, reducing risk, and preventing avoidable hospitalizations.
For more information about the Alzheimer’s Infrastructure Act, go to https://alzimpact.org/priorities/bold_alzheimers_act. The UK Center on Aging is online at https://ukhealthcare.uky.edu/uk-sanders-brown-center-aging. “Like Falling From A Cloud” information is on Goodreads and Amazon.com.