Alzheimers on the Rise in Hawai‘i
A wave of graying boomers will change the way we live and age in the Islands. No surprise, we’re finding our own ways of facing the challenge.
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ellen and george matsumoto, lani ka‘aihue: their smiles may not be what you think of when it comes to alzheimer’s and dementia, but they’ve made a choice to live fully while they can.
Photos: Diana Kim
Then her daughter’s internship fell through. “She came home and ended up living on the couch. We had only one bathroom. Father had some incontinence issues. We had to schedule bathroom time as early as 4:30 in the morning. It was challenging. A mini-nightmare, actually.”
Tyson joined a support group in Mililani sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, attended classes, read up on the disease and talked to a trust attorney, “who walked me through the legal part,” she says. “Fortunately, my mother still had the mental wherewithal to do the paperwork. It was hard enough as it was, but she did already have trust documents that showed me as trustee and gave me her power of attorney.”
Putting both their condo and her parents’ home on the market, Tyson struggled to keep her own business going while she juggled selling the houses, hunting for a new house to buy that could accommodate all of them and taking care of both her parents. In August of 2014, they moved into a new place in Mililani.
Anyone would be forgiven for thinking the day-to-day lives of Lani and Leslie and their families must be somber and edged with dread, but they’d be wrong. Lani is bright and joyful; though numbers evade her grasp, she speaks in full, luminous paragraphs—perhaps aided by the poetry she started writing in an Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter-sponsored workshop. The writing seems to pump life into her stories about her father’s decline, her mother’s hard but triumphant life.
After explaining her father’s role as a Browning Automatic Rifle specialist in his Marine Corps platoon, she makes a nimble comic segue: “My first job out of college was as a bouncer at the Territorial Tavern,” she says, impishly.
“With two big guys standing behind you,” injects Greg Ambrosio, her husband, who has just retired.
They joke and smile, trade quips and scatological stories with wry Winifred, now 88. Like many who’ve lived with Alzheimer’s, nothing seems to faze them now. They’re leaving in a couple of weeks for a trip to Europe. “I’m not nervous,” she says, looking at Greg. “I’m lucky, I found the perfect man.”
Leslie also has a generous laugh and perspective. She laughs at how her mother, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, took herself to the Wahiawā Hospital by bus and signed up to volunteer, then went down the road to the nearby Botanical Garden and did the same. “Mom is a Type-A personality, always active and a doer,” says Leslie. “Cute, but I’m also always chasing after her.”
george and ellen still lead a full life, including taking themselves to $6 movie dates by bus.
Ellen and George Matsumoto still go on movie dates every Tuesday, catching the bus to Pearlridge for $6 movie matinees. Monday and Wednesday are spent at the Wahiawā and Mililani recreation centers, taking part in senior programs. Leslie is proud of their reluctance to surrender their independence, but admits, “It’s been emotional accepting the changes. We’re taught to honor and respect our parents, to listen to what they say and to obey. I was trying to be the daughter and the caregiver, and it just didn’t work out that way. The roles are reversed now. They’re the children.”
More and more, what her mother says doesn’t make sense. “She may go on and it’s really goofy. And I’m learning not to stop her. You just have to enter their world.”
For Lani, being inside the world of Alzheimer’s and yet still able to appreciate its difference, “is fascinating. Yes, it’s a challenge. However many days I have left, I’m going to live them, and have some fun while I’m at it. Squeeze as much out of life as you can, right? While you have it.
“Look,” she adds, “we just kid ourselves—any of our lives could end at any moment. If you have the good fortune to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, like Hawai‘i, and if you’re lucky to have a good husband or companion, you have it all.
“I have it all, and I have Alzheimer’s, too.”