Ron Grant is not fighting.
It's not that he isn't willing. It's that, in a sense, he can't.
Grant cannot beat Alzheimer's. It's not like cancer. You can fight cancer. You can beat cancer. You can be cancer free.
Not Alzheimer's. Not yet, anyway.
Grant has resolved to take a different approach to his disease.
“Like you, you've got to figure out what you can do to make your future better ... You're thinking about, ‘How can I get promoted in my job?' and ‘Where do I ultimately want to be?' and ‘What do I need to do to prepare and get there and strive for that?'” Grant said. “Hey, I don't have any of that any more. So you see, in that sense, there is that freedom, and once people learn to live in that freedom, yes, I have the black cloud of Alzheimer's hanging over my head that some day is going to totally devastate me, but at this point, it hasn't, and people need to understand we can't change that day from getting here, but we have control today.”
That conclusion didn't come in the first year of Grant's Alzheimer's diagnosis, but it's a thought process he tries to help the newest members of his support group understand.
Wednesday evening, Grant sat with a retired doctor, businessman, private investigator, Navy veteran and dentist. They've each been diagnosed with dementia and are at different stages of the disease. At 61, Grant is one of the younger support group members.
Across from them sat about 10 fourth-year medical students from the University of Oklahoma's College of Medicine. They're required to attend two support group meetings, one with the people who have been diagnosed, another with the caregivers, who sit in a different room nearby.
The students are young, preparing to start their careers. Across from them, a woman in the support group tells them she wishes she could remember hers.
As they move down the line of chairs, it is not easy for some of the group members to share their stories. Grant helps draw out some of their memories.
The man sitting next to him stalls when it's his turn. “Tell them what you used to do,” Grant says to him with a kindness easy to communicate with his mix of west Texas and Oklahoma accent.
Grant goes last and talks the most. He's a retired preacher, and it's time for his sermon on Alzheimer's.
Six years ago, Grant checked the mail and read a letter from his doctor with news that a 55-year-old man doesn't expect: the damage that his neurologist saw on his brain scan was consistent with that of early Alzheimer's. As far as Grant knows, early-onset Alzheimer's does not run in his family.
No more reading books
Before Alzheimer's, Grant was a prison chaplain. He has a bachelor's degree, three master's degrees and a doctorate. A reverend, he knows how to capture the room's attention.
He tells them that he has given up reading books. Before Alzheimer's, he could read a 250-page book in about two hours. But these days, he can't remember what he has read long enough to make reading enjoyable. He has boxes and boxes of books in his attic, where they can't frustrate him.
On his bad days, he might watch a Western movie. Or maybe an episode of the “Andy Griffith Show.” He could have sworn he had seen them all, but it feels like they've made new episodes.
Some of the things he says to the students feel practiced. He has said them to so many different groups — but for a moment, his composure cracks.
It's when he explains how he knew something was wrong, the day his daughter was telling him a story, and he told her that he was confused. He couldn't remember the events she described even though he was a part of the story.
His memories can feel like a broken mirror, with pieces missing that will never return.
“You don't understand what it's like to have abnormal forgetting,” he says, beginning to cry. “With us, it's gone. It's not there any more. That's not normal. That's not normal. And we can mask a lot of things and we can still function at levels — so everything must be OK? No, it's not. And just because you don't know what's going on within us doesn't mean there's not something that's not working right. I'm very grateful and appreciative that I am able to do as well as I am, but I know I'm not who I used to be.”
When Grant read “Alzheimer's” on his brain scan results, his image of Alzheimer's was of an old man in a rocking chair, drooling on himself.
That could still happen, he says, but Grant has given up on the thought that he can control the disease. Grant lets God handle that. Meanwhile, he focuses on the things he loves.
He does chores around the house and tries to show his wife, Vicky, how much he appreciates her. And he tries to spend time with his daughters and grandchildren, like on Thanksgiving when he had a blast with his grandsons.
“Alzheimer's is not going to kill me tomorrow,” Grant said. “ ... The pathology is going to do what it's going to do. Plain and simple. I can't change that, but as I get to where I can't read and can't do certain things and I get to talking and I search for a word and I say the wrong word or I can't remember the proper word I want to use, I just can't let myself get too rattled over that.
“If I focus on things I can't do, I miss what I can do. And there's still a lot of things I can do.”