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11/06/07 12:20PM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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Madeleine Kunin, commentator
(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin recently went to the store to buy groceries, but came home with a deeper understanding of what it's like to cope with Alzheimers.

(KUNIN) Five million Americans are living with Alzheimers disease, a brain disorder which was first recognized in 1906 by Alois Alzheimer. But it has only been in the last 15 years that Alzheimer’s has become a household word, because it is exactly that - it affects households, it affects families and changes their lives forever. Alzheimer’s now has the distinction of being the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

There is no cure, but there are caregivers who live with loved ones and deal with the symptoms of changes in memory, thinking and behavior every day. I received some insight into what that means in one person’s life while waiting in the check-out line at the super market.

At first I was a little annoyed at the elderly couple who got in line ahead of us. I was in a hurry.

Then I admonished myself. They're older than you are. Be patient. Be kind.

I looked at them more carefully. The man’s clothes were well worn, and his hat sat at an odd angle on his head. He didn’t look like a street person, his face was shaven and his shoes were tied, but he didn’t look ‘quite right’ either. He was distracted, intent on a mission.

I eavesdropped on the conversation.

"I want to sit down," he said to his wife, in a pleading tone.

"There’s no place to sit," she said.

"I’m going to sit down, I have to sit down," he insisted in a voice that was now loud and demanding. Without permission, he wandered off from the check out line.

She looked worried. She was torn between losing her place in line, or losing her husband.

She did not move but anxiously followed him with her eyes. Sure enough. There was a place to sit in the corridor behind the cashiers. A bench. He had found what he was looking for. He wasn’t out of his mind.

She turned to me and said, "This has been going on for fifteen years. Sometimes I lose track of him.

"Yesterday he said he loved me. Most of the time in the car he says, 'Who are you?'"

I wanted to hug her, but didn’t. I wanted to thank her for what she had given me: an insight into living with Alzheimers.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.
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