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August 18, 2017

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Are You Who I Think You Are? - A Son's Story of His Parents, the Power of Love and Alzheimer's Disease.  - by Neil Schnaak


"Are you who I think you are?" 
 is the question my mother asked my father several years ago.
 When I heard the question, it caused me to ask myself, "Am I who I think I am?" 

Alzheimer's Disease Impact on Family and Caregiving


When life presents enormous challenges for those you love, I've learned that the solution will be apparent if you value relationships and acknowledge the power of love.

Let me tell you my family's story.
The Ernest Schnaak Family
Mom and Dad met while Dad was a young Air Force Lieutenant earning his wings.  They had a small military wedding more than 60 years ago.

Nine months later, when their first son was born, Dad was overseas in Africa.  They had five boys in their first nine years of marriage and moved seven times.

Dad's first love is flying. He started when he was fourteen and continued to fly for almost seventy years.  He flew tankers in the Air Force, retired from Eastern Airlines with a flawless flight record and became a Flight Instructor to share his knowledge with those eager to learn the art.

Master Airman Award He was awarded the FAA's prestigious "Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award" for his aviation skill and expertise.

Dad's whole life centered on meeting objectives and following the airline's or Mom's directives, whether it was on-time arrival with the airline or getting us all to church.  

Mom enjoys life...
She taught us love and the value of relationships.  She was a homemaker and great mother to her five boys, attending to our needs: baseball, tennis, scouts, homework-enforcement while Dad was away on his trips with the airline.

Mom is incredibly smart.  She loved to read, and taught us all the pleasure of reading. She attended college after raising five boys and made the Dean's List.


Mom was the Planner!
Whether it was building a house, planning a reunion or going on a vacation; she organized the details of any event. 

As good as it was, Mom resented Dad's passion for flying and the attention he received.  She felt she could never compete with flying.  She found herself both publicly and privately in the shadow of the airline captain, with her own accomplishments going unrecognized and unacknowledged. 

Their life became a series of transactions rather than a relationship.  Mom asked and Dad gave.  His loving response was to give her whatever she wanted.

The disappointments and resentment in her life and in her marriage were etched in her mind and voiced repeatedly over the years to anyone that would pause to listen to her story.  My brothers and I pursued our lives away from the epicenter of the emotions that consumed our parents and eventually unraveled their relationship and their marriage. 

She asked him to divorce her and as always, he followed her directions.  I suppose he did it out of love.

They divorced in 1986, occasionally seeing one another at family gatherings, graduations or weddings.

Mom was happy to live her life in the mountains of North Carolina.  Her home was always a warm, comfortable place.

Dad continued his love of flying by sharing his knowledge and experience as a flight instructor.

They never remarried and always seemed interested in each other, at least from a distance.

In 2009, it became apparent that Mom was not functioning at her usual level of excellence.  She was forgetful and unaware.  It has been said that "Aging is NOT for sissies."  It shouldn't be done alone.  Everyone needs an advocate to facilitate and guide them.

So we assembled a medical team of specialists: Geriatric, Neurological, Psychiatric. Alzheimers is a thief

Mom gracefully submitted to the battery of physical and psychological exams, neurological tests and cognitive evaluations.

"Draw the face of a clock."

"Count backwards from 100 by sevens."

"Remember the words:  BALL, WATCH, PEN, TREE, FLAG.  I'll ask you to repeat them in a few minutes."

Finally she was diagnosed with that ubiquitous disease of our day, Alzheimer's Disease. IT'S A THIEF.

You slowly lose precious memories and the knowledge of who you are, who those closest to you are and the ability to perform and function independently.

We have seen Mom through her good times and supported her through episodes of uncertainty, darkness and loss.  Medicines help but they're not a cure; memory lapse, mood swings, paranoia and psychosis persist.  Each day she struggles to reclaim herself.  She may pause to recall who she is, who we are, and how to go about doing some basic things.

One day it was going down the stairs, Mom seemed to have forgotten how, so I taught her.  She smiled and was grateful.

Any kind of illness is expensive.  She failed the test for federal aid because she made too much, and she made too little to afford a quality assisted living facility.  

Jean and I were in a position to invite her to live with us but there was the concern of how to care for her as we continued to work.  I remembered the time when Dad came to live with Jean and me to help care for our son David during an extended illness.   He was the grandpa and father I'd hoped he'd be.

When I thought of Mom and her needs I thought "Dad, are you who I think you are?".

I turned to him for his help, to nurture Mom and to become her primary caregiver.  I thought I knew what his answer would be.  Dad stepped forward eagerly, though he had his doubts that she would accept him.
The Family Home at 2338 Churchill Road, Raleigh, NC

Our plan was not met with any degree of optimism by Mom's doctors, our friends, in-laws or the Alzheimer's Association, but we felt it was worth a try.  It felt right to us.

My brothers and their families supported the plan so we moved forward.

We rented a home in Raleigh and created an environment that would allow them to succeed.  It was a space large enough to give everyone their privacy and accommodate visits from my brothers and their families; and small enough to be watchful and alert for Mom and Dad's needs.  

Wedding Ceremony of Mary and Ernie Schnaak When they met again on moving day Mom looked at Dad and with a sparkle in her eyes and a school girl's smile she asked "Are you who I think you are?"  Dad responded "I think so." 

It was love reignited.  She became his new "airport".  Feeding her, caring for her and loving her consumed him.   It wasn't long before talk of (re)- marriage was taking place and long cast-off wedding bands were being worn again.  I looked at Dad and realized that he was exactly who I thought he was.  

Six months later, Dad took the hand of his bride once again, for better or for worse.  It was a small, intimate wedding ceremony held in our home and blessed by our pastor, Jonathan Bow.   Mom enjoyed the attention, and the ceremony, and the cake, and the flowers.  Dad was uncomfortable with the kindness and commotion but he loved the sparkle in Mom's eyes. And I asked myself "Are they the people I thought they were?"

We will never really know if this was a matter of forgiveness or forgetfulness.  I choose to believe it was forgiveness.  Either way, they're happy-in-love honeymooners and a testimony to the power of Love.

They've begun a new life in Ormond Beach, Florida  where the weather is warmer and the sun seems brighter.   The third floor of a nice condo with a beach view and my brother Bruce providing the watchful eye.  



Mom no longer remembers the bad stuff.  She's blissful. It seems the love she's always had for him is no longer shadowed by "keeping score".  And Dad, he is exceptionally happy!

Our life here is fleeting but there are a few key lessons I'm just beginning to understand. 

It's all about relationships, forgiving others and forgiving ourselves, loving God and loving others, through the good times and the bad; and always asking and evaluating "Am I who I think I am?"

                                    - Neil Schnaak

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