Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer’s

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January 22, 2015

Imagine writing down the most difficult and depressing moments of your life, researching the topics associated with those moments, and then publishing them into a book for everyone to read. Then imagine that you are already a well known broadcast journalist who is married to a prominent physician who heads the hematology/oncology division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Combine these facts with your husband, the prominent physician, being diagnosed at age 57 with Alzheimer’s disease and that you will care for him for the rest of his life. This scenario plays out in the book Slow Dancing with a Stranger where Meryl Comer, the Emmy award winning reporter writes honestly and brutally about the extreme difficulties in taking care of her husband, Dr. Harvey Gralnick and also patients with Alzheimer’s disease in general. 

If you do not have firsthand knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease, this book will be a significant eye opener to the trials that Alzheimer’s patients and their loved ones experience. Ms. Comer describes the productive and very professional lives she and her husband led which disintegrated with Dr. Gralnick’s evaluation, hospitalization and treatments. She describes how it may be difficult to make the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, especially in a patient who is relatively young. Dr. Gralnick spent 3 months in the psychiatric unit at Johns Hopkins while they tried treating his symptoms with medications. She writes about the difficulties in paying for the cost of care, which is one instance was $15,000 a month, at a care unit for dementia patients. She relates in graphic details the day to day difficulties of caring for someone who cannot feed, dress, or bathe themselves and who is often incontinent, in need of constant supervision. Her husband is often inappropriate with assisted living staff members, exposing himself to women and often can be violent to caregivers. 

She describes the emotional and physical costs to the caregiver as well. Her work and social life, which was once vibrant and busy, dwindled to nothing. She could no longer work or travel, and she could not routinely keep appointments with friends because she had to constantly cover her husband’s care. Added to her husband’s care was her ailing mother’s worsening memory. Halfway through the book, the author finds herself not only caring at least 12 hours a day for her husband, but her mother has to move in after several incidents of calling the police unsupervised in her apartment. 

Despite caring for two dementia patients at the same time, Ms. Comer becomes the president and CEO of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer’s Initiative who focuses on early diagnosis and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. She opened her home to television cameras to show the plight of this difficult disease and the situations that caregivers deal with on a constant basis. In doing so, she opened herself up to criticism from the general public as well as encouraging comments and questions from acquaintances. One woman she met with confessed that she didn’t want to be like the author, and Ms. Comer says, “I don’t want anyone to have to be like me.” After more than 20 years of caring for her husband at home, the author was able to still work on this book, while trying to help others dealing with this terrible disease. May this book inspire more research and advances in Alzheimer’s treatment as well as support for caregivers.

Two previous blogs on this website, Taking Steps to Maintain a Lucid Mind, A New Year’s Message outlines lifestyle habits that can help prevent Alzheimer’s. A previous blog on Nell Lake’s book The Caregivers explains more of the stresses of caregiving and the importance of caregivers to have their own support.