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The Unpredictability of Alzheimers’ Disease

So often, when working with families who are struggling to care for a loved one with dementia, the most frustrating part is the uncertainty of the condition from day to day.  The recent case in Minnesota of Verne Gagne highlights that very clearly.


            Verne Gagne was a prominent professional wrestler in his day with the American Wrestling Association, in the 1960âs and 70âs.  He eventually lost his big stars, such as Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura, to the World Wrestling Federation. He is now 82, and suffers from Alzheimerâs disease, residing in a nursing home.  That is where he had an altercation with a 97 year old resident and put a wrestling move on the resident, slamming his body to the ground.  The other man broke his hip and died several weeks later.  The police are investigating the incident but there is a consensus of opinion that Mr. Gagne should not be charged with a crime because he didnât know what he was doing.  A tragic story but with similarities that are all too familiar to families who have loved ones with Alzheimerâs.  It is the uncertain, sometimes violent and erratic, behavior that can be most frustrating and frightening. 


Although no one can be sure what caused Verne Gagne to act in the way he did, we know that Alzheimerâs patients very often lose their short term memory but are able to conjure memories of events and people 40 or 50 years ago or more.  Gagneâs skill as a wrestler made him more dangerous than the average resident.  Firstly, he was more physically fit than the average resident.  Secondly,  while he was losing his short term memory, he was prone to recalling events from his past, such as his days wrestling.  Perhaps it is that memory, programmed into his brain, that caused him to perform a wrestling move on his co-resident.


            It is the unpredictability that often turns a familyâs world upside down,.  Dad can be living comfortably in a facility one day and the next he can become extremely agitated and aggressive, causing the facility to ask the family to move him because they canât accommodate his needs, or because of concern for the safety of other residents.


            It is just another reason why families cannot wait and react to a loved oneâs long term care needs.  When possible, preventative measures need to be taken.  So often, we see families plan as if Mom or Dadâs current condition, while tragic and upsetting, will remain static, unchanging.   That is usually far from the case and misjudging the situation can be worse than anyone imagined.


Who knows what could have been done to prevent Verne Gagne from acting out, although, there was at least one previous altercation between the two residents.  The lesson to be learned on a broader level, however, is to recognize the unpredictability of Alzheimerâs, and dementia in general.  Take action before, not after, it becomes necessary.  I am sure everyone involved in Verne Gagneâs case is reexamining what they could have done differently.