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Leon Bass' video, The 36-Hour Day, Charlie Pierce's Family Alzheimer's Story

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Leon Bass' video, The 36-Hour Day, Charlie Pierce's Family Alzheimer's Story

Picture of Jeff  Kelly Lowenstein

This post discusses the life story of Dr. Leon Bass, a black veteran and educator whose wife died of Alzheimer's disease, and two other books related to the topic.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein's blog
Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dunreith and I spoke with Dr. Leon Bass the other night.

One of my heroes, he had sent us a video that interspersed him telling his life story with images of the topics he was discussing.

Born in Depression-era Philadelphia, he served during World War II in the segregated United States Army. During his training he had to endure numerous humiliating experiences in the segregated South.

During the war, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and witnessed unspeakable horrors as a witness to the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Bass returned home and began a 34-year career as an educator, during which time he impacted the lives of thousands of individuals, including Community Renewal Society Executive Director and my boss Dr. Calvin Morris.

Dr. Bass participated in the March on Washington, became the first black principal at the Benjamin Franklin High School and eventually started speaking about his experiences before, during and after the war.

Shortly after returning home, Dr. Bass fell in love with, and married, his wife Mary.

A former schoolteacher, she bore, and together they raised, their son and daughter. They traveled around the world. They buried each other's parents.

In short, they shared their lives during the more than half century they were married.

Unfortunately, toward the end of her life, Mary contracted Alzheimer's disease.

Eventually, like so many others who are snared by a declining memory, she struggled to recognize her loved ones and to remember who she was.

Ultimately, Dr. Bass made the painful decision to move his wife to a facility near the community where they were living. While there she received high-quality and compassionate care as well as daily visits from her husband.

In doing so, he heeded the advice given in Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins' The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for Person with Alzheimer's Disease, Related Dementing Illnesses, and Memory Loss in Later Life.

As the name suggests, one of the main point the book makes is that caring for people with dementia or other issues is a never ending task that, if not shared, can end the caregiver's life years early than would otherwise have happened.

First published in 1981 and subsequently revised several times, this classic guide covers nearly every aspect imaginable for people dealing with loved ones who have memory issues. Accessible and practical, the book covers everything from dealing with other family members to taking care of oneself to how to deal with issues of hygiene and how to provide environments that are not excessively disturbing for the person with memory loss.

Mrs. Bass died in the earlier part of this decade, and Dr. Bass is still soldiering on.

He's had a knee replaced, cataracts removed from his eyes and a pacemaker implanted, but his spirits are still strong, he still sees family members regularly and travels across the country to speak to audiences about his life's journey.

Writer Charlie Pierce tells a less happy, but at least as significant, tale in his book, Hard to Forget: A Family's Alzheimer's Story.

In 1985, Pierce's father John went to place flowers on a family grave in Worcester, Massachusetts.

He was found three days later in Vermont.

This was the first undeniable sign that his father had some neurological loss-evidence that Pierce and other members of his family promptly denied.

The book tells the tale of how his family moved from denial to confronting his father's decline, its impact on his family and the heated competition between researchers to make breakthroughs on this disease that robs its victims of their identity even as their body often remains intact.

Readers may know Pierce for his lighter fare as a regular guest on the public radio quiz show Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me, his work for Esquire magazine or his sports writing, such as his biography, Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything.

While Pierce's writing skill is familiar, the gravity of his subject matter is not.

He skillfully moves between a searching examination and then description of the rampant nature of Alzheimer's within his family-most, if not all of his father's siblings have the disease-the emotional toll dealing with it takes, and the questions he asks himself at 44 years old about his own neurological future.

Pierce's wife Margaret Doris is the book's heroine, supporting Pierce, working to care for his parents and urging all to look squarely at what they are facing.

The number of families dealing these issues has already increased, and will only continue to grow, according to news reports.

Those who do would do well to draw on these two valuable books and to consult these resources.