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Confronting Alzheimer’s Disease and the Meaning of Tikkun Olam

Confronting Alzheimer’s Disease and the Meaning of Tikkun Olam

I was very young when I first recognized my calling in life. My early experiences helped me grasp the importance of what I might accomplish if I could succeed at practicing medicine with compassion. I can still recall being 9 years old, with sleepy eyes, taking my post for the night; it was my turn to sleep on the floor at the door to Great Grams’ room and to sound the alarm should she try to escape. Great Grams had made several previous escapes, once making it down the hill to the corner, flagging down a truck, and climbing inside, convinced her family was trying to kill her.

That night, years of memories danced in my dreams, most of them good – but Great Grams had no good memories to sustain her. It wasn’t her forgetfulness, but rather her insurmountable paranoia that affected every fiber of our lives. Certainly, it was understandable. If you can’t remember moving an item, then someone else must’ve moved it. If you can’t remember what your husband looks like, then perhaps he’s that man someone has snatched away. If you can’t remember money in the bank, then all you’re left with are the few dollars in your purse – and Great Grams held on to that purse day and night.

When I was a child, my great grandmother was my best friend. Almost 90 years my senior, she and I played together like brother and sister, sharing toys and even vying for parental affection. We shared an unusual relationship, each feeling responsible for the other. Afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, sometimes Great Grams was an adult. At those times, she advised me, protected me, and expressed concern for me. At other times, I was the adult, watching her as we crossed the street and even “bubbie-sitting” for her when my parents had to go out. I grew up embracing these responsibilities. As Great Grams became more child-like, I became a caregiver.

During the last year of her life, my great grandmother spent time in and out of hospital dementia wards, most often for the urinary tract infections that so often accompany incontinence. Upon visiting her in these settings, I noticed that patients who were working on jigsaw puzzles seemed calmer than their frequently agitated peers. I learned that staying mentally active can help postpone the point at which an Alzheimer’s patient is no longer functional in society. After Great Grams passed away in 2007, I decided to collect jigsaw puzzles and distribute them to the facilities that had helped care for her.

In 2008, I founded PuzzlesToRemember, a nonprofit organization that donates free jigsaw puzzles to facilities that care for Alzheimer’s patients. To date, more than 24,000 puzzles have been distributed around the world. In conjunction with Springbok, I developed Springbok PuzzlesToRemember, specialized puzzles with large pieces, colorful, memory-provoking images, and low piece count, made to meet the needs of Alzheimer’s patients and give them an often elusive feeling of accomplishment.

Now a junior neuroscience major at Boston University, I am also a research intern in the Molecular Psychiatry in Aging lab at BUSM, where I investigate various hormones and their relationship to Alzheimer’s.

I believe it is important for children to understand Alzheimer's disease so they can still interact lovingly with family members who have this disease. This is why I recently coauthored a book, Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator: An Explaination of Alzheimer’s Disease for Children. Fifty percent of the profits will be donated to Alzheimer’s causes.

Not only is Alzheimer’s disease difficult for patients and their families, it is biggest major threat to our economy, costing our nation $203 billion annually with projections to reach $1.2 trillion by 2050. We must be proactive about tackling Alzheimer’s on multiple fronts, encompassing compassionate care of those afflicted, support for weary caregivers, and research to find treatments – and, perhaps, a cure.

Recently, I was been honored to be named a 2013 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award. I believe the meaning of tikkun olam, repair of our world, is that it is everyone’s responsibility to reach out and make a difference. It doesn’t have to be a huge, earth-changing event; microphilanthopy is the source of many wonderful advances. No one is too young, too old, or too disadvantaged to affect change. All you have to do is one little thing to improve the life of someone else. Once you do this a few times, you will become addicted to the feeling of euphoria that comes with knowing you made a difference.

Max Wallack, 17, is a junior at Boston University and a researcher in the Molecular Psychiatry in Aging Laboratory at Boston University School of Medicine. Max was recently chosen as a 2013 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award winner and is the author of scientific publications and a new children’s book explaining Alzheimer’s disease. He grew up at Temple Shir Tikvah in Wayland, MA, and is now an active participant in Boston University’s Hillel.

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