Up to 10 percent of Alzheimer's patients are under 65 years old. Of course, it's a shock when Alzheimer's disease strikes in the twilight of someone's life. Just imagine what it's like when it happens at high noon.
If you didn't know something was wrong, you'd never suspect a thing.
CBS News Correspondent Tracy Smith reports after 22 years of marriage, Kris and Ralph Bakowski are facing what's been called the long goodbye. He's 11 years older, but it seems impossible that either would show signs of senility. Still, a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease was made last year for Kris, age 46.
Talking to her, she seems perfectly healthy.
"I think one of the problems with people accepting it is you don't look sick. And people will come up to me and say, 'Oh, well, you must be doing great. You look great.' Well it doesn't have anything to do with what I look like. It's all in my head," she says with a laugh.
Alzheimer's makes ordinary tasks confusing, so just about everything requires Kris' full attention. She can drive during daylight hours and run a few errands. But now, a woman who once prided herself on a photographic memory has to write everything down at work so she won't forget.
And just going shopping is a special challenge. In fact, the mall is where she realized something was wrong.
"I was in the store and looking at some things and thought, 'Where am I? And why am I here? And how did I get here?' And I looked around the store and I didn't even know what store I was in. Did not recognize it at all. And just walked around kind of like sleepwalking, just not having a clue of what was going on. I walked outside to see if I could recognize anything and I looked right at the sign of the store and still did not recognize where I was," she says.
When she went through medical tests and got the Alzheimer's diagnosis, Kris Bakowski says she was relieved.
"I hate it that I have it, but I do. So you just learn to live with it and go on," she says.
Her husband now goes grocery shopping with her because she's afraid she'll get lost in the store. And it's Ralph Bakowski who makes sure she swallows an assortment of pills every day to keep the symptoms in check.
"It's been hard for him, and that makes me feel very bad that I have this burden that I've given to my family," says Kris Bakowski. "And even though it's not my fault that I have this, it's just something that I just feel bad because I just feel like I should carry the burden myself. And I know that, in time, that's not going to be the case."
Ralph Bakowski compares the situation to being on the Titanic. He knows the ship will eventually sink -- he just hopes it won't happen right away.
"I know it's not my fault but I feel responsible for it. And I don't want those people to be on the boat with me when it sinks," she says.
"But it's our choice," he adds.
It was especially hard for Kris Bakowski to break the news to her son, Alan.
"It was just tragedy, really," Alan says. "It sounded to me like, 'Here's your mother who has done nothing in life but care for you. And now she's being sentenced to death.' That's what it felt like."
Kris still does a lot of the cooking. But she holds tight to her recipe cards so she won't forget little things like adding the sugar--or turning off the oven.
Alan's getting used to keeping an eye on his Mom. In the cruel progress of Alzheimer's disease, the parent becomes the child. But that hasn't happened yet.
Not worried about himself, Alan thinks of his Mom and says his reaction was "just how terrible a thing to happen to her, because she's been so wonderful to me, been nothing but a great mother, hard worker, doesn't deserve it."
The drugs Kris Bakowski takes do a good job of fending off the symptoms of Alzheimer's, but they do not slow the progress of the disease. And while the numbers say most people live only 7 to 8 years after an Alzheimer's diagnosis, that's based on people who are in their 70s and 80s. A young, healthy woman probably has a better chance of living longer.
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