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Reviewed by Fiona Ingram for Readers' Favorite
Imagine that your talented, brilliant husband, a renowned scientist and doctor devoted to his patients, starts to exhibit erratic behaviour patterns, becomes aggressive when questioned, and becomes ‘someone else?’ In Slow Dancing with a Stranger, this is what happened to journalist and author Meryl Comer. It took two years and a painful battery of tests before Harvey Gralnik was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age fifty-eight. This was a devastating blow to both Harvey and Meryl, and their family and friends. What followed is a nearly twenty-year odyssey of trauma, hardship and tragedy as Harvey declined mentally and physically. After a series of disasters with care homes, Meryl gave up her stellar career to nurse Harvey at home with the help of a team of dedicated care-givers. Another blow fell when her mother, too, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and also came to live with Meryl. Caring for these two people became the focus of Meryl’s existence.
Meryl’s book dedication is to her grandchildren, that may their memories last a lifetime. Memories are what we take for granted. When we forget something small and inconsequential, like where we placed our keys, it’s nothing. Imagine forgetting everything, even who you are. I was moved as Slow Dancing with a Stranger detailed how Harvey disintegrated from a true Renaissance man—cultured, elegant, educated, gracious, charming and creative—into a shambling shell who might lash out in rage at any minute against his wife and caregivers. As I read, I could hardly believe the horror of what Alzheimer’s can do, and there is no cure. The statistics on Alzheimer’s are frightening. Every sixty-eight seconds, someone falls victim, but fifty percent are never diagnosed. The disease affects 5.4 million people in the US and 44 million worldwide.
What is clear from reading this harrowing memoir is that the average person has no concept of what it is like to live with and care for someone with Alzheimer’s. Forget the sepia tinged idea of a sufferer just having more than a few ‘senior moments.’ There is no glamour and very little reward in caring for an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Meryl’s brutally honest account describes a descent into a kind of nightmarish madness, hideous for both the caregiver and the sufferer. Fighting a dread disease is made easier when the patient can fight back, too, along with their family, loved ones and medical team. Imagine when the silent enemy is insidiously eating away at all that one cherishes: one’s memories, one’s capacity for human behaviour, one’s sense of self. Closeness, or intimacy, and shared memories define relationships. When you have no memories, you have no ‘you.’ The loss of social restraints, the loss of memory and identity, the loss of connection with people they once loved and who love them is painfully and agonisingly described in Meryl’s words.
Writing with elegance and simplicity, the author cogently describes a hellish journey that most of us would have given up on, a labour of love beyond what any average person would take on. The author asks and answers many soul searching questions in her book, the most important one being why take on this burden? Was it out of love, duty, or guilt? Perhaps Meryl answers that best with these words: “No one deserves to be forgotten in life because their disease is without hope.” This book is a must-read, no matter your age.