Healthinaging.org is pleased to feature a guest blog by Dr. Ramona Rhodes.
Ramona Rhodes, MD, MPH, MSCS, AGSF
Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine
Geriatrics and Palliative Care Sections
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
My Cousin Opal was my paternal grandmother’s cousin. They were close in age, grew up together, and were best friends. Cousin Opal was college educated—a great accomplishment for an African American woman born in the South in the early 1920s. She was a school teacher, community leader, social butterfly, and true fashionista.
I met Cousin Opal when I was in high school. Cousin Opal was widowed and did not have children. She had relocated from the Northeast to our small town, and was living with my grandmother at the time. Cousin Opal began to exhibit problems with her memory, and though the word “Alzheimer’s” was whispered, my grandmother would never discuss it.
Over time, Cousin Opal became increasingly more forgetful, and she would only say a few words. Food became harder to swallow, so my grandmother would blend things up into a puree to make it easier. Eventually Cousin Opal stopped talking, stopped walking, and could not get out of bed. And then, of course, Cousin Opal stopped eating. My grandmother then made the decision to place a feeding tube.
Dementia is a neurodegenerative disorder (disorder that affects the brain) that results in memory loss and decline in function. As dementias like Alzheimer’s disease progress to the advanced stage, patients become weaker and more dependent. They lose their ability to talk, move around, and have a hard time with chewing and swallowing. As a result, caregivers of dementia patients are often faced with the decision to place, or not place, a feeding tube for nutritional support.