Memory loss challenges new citizen, loving family

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

Blanca Marroquin was 85 in 2005 when she became a U.S. citizen. That was just weeks after she was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease.

For months, the Guatemala native who emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 would diligently study her small black book, a book now weathered from constant reading but still filled with information related to America.

She would read from borrowed library books, learn the names of senators and presidents and study for countless hours. By next sunrise, however, all the names and details would be lost.

But Marroquin was determined to become a citizen. In May 2005, she went to the immigration office in Sacramento with her son, Edgar Rodas, and met with an officer. She couldnt answer his questions about American government; she couldnt remember the names or places.

Rodas immediately contacted her doctor. After several examinations, Marroquin was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease and dementia.

They made a second trip to the Sacramento immigration office, packed with a doctors note, the proper paperwork and a handful of information required for testing.

This time, allowances for her disability allowed Marroquin to bypass the test, with the exception of a few questions. Within two hours, her green card was taken and Marroquin was taking the oath of citizenship.

'The judge asked me if I would go to war. I said Im old but I would go, as long as someone held me by my arm,' she said in her native language of Spanish. She gave a short laugh, as if her breath could not permit a longer one.

Two years later, the Alzheimers is advancing in Marroquin, a progressive, irreversible neurological disorder that attacks the brain and results in memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment and personality changes.

Still, she strives to move on, this woman who sits hours beside a family portrait of her five children and just inches from her Bible. Yet she can still remember why she wanted to become a citizen.

'I wanted to stay in this country because I like it very much. Everyone can have a job here and that is because this country is blessed by God. Those who dont work choose not to work,' she said, a frail finger waves through the air as if shes orchestrating her words. 'I want to stay and live here. And here is where I want to die.'

Down memory lane

Marroquin may not remember yesterday, but she clearly remembers her younger years.

She was born on May 24, 1919, in a Guatemala town called Tecpan, a place Rodas described as the land of eternal spring.

Marroquin, who speaks with a gentle and passionate voice, recalled she was a mischievous child and laughed when she revived the snippets of her past.

'I would climb this tree to get a fruit that had a small red seed in the center. Yes, I would eat those all the time,' she said.

She also remembers the stray bullet that pierced her sons throat more than four decades ago in Guatemala City, instantly killing him.

'The man that killed my son, Erick? Yes, I forgave him from my heart, not my lips. Its God who gives justice at the end,' she said.

And, with even more detail, she recalls vividly the day her son, Saul, failed to wake up.

'He was very tall, a very good son and he was always hugging me. But one day, I called him to help my husband in the fields but he didnt answer,' she said and recalled the day was warmed by the suns embrace. 'My husband broke the door to his room and who knows at what time, but God called him. It hurts my heart.

'I remember that day with all my heart, but I cant remember what day it is today,' she said and lowered her eyes, almost in shame. 'It was a hard experience. The night before he said goodnight and May God be with you. I was so scared but God gave me the strength.'

Recalling memories from the past is common with people who suffer from Alzheimers, said Jill Center, communications director for the Northern California Chapter of the Alzheimers Association.

'Alzheimers is really about the inability to form new memories, such as remembering what they had for breakfast,' she said. 'As the disease progresses, it becomes more difficult to remember what you did five minutes ago and eventually, it will be difficult to remember those memories from the past.'

Although Alzheimers is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, and the fifth leading cause of death for those over 65, Carter feels the stigma of Alzheimers remains, with people not knowing what to do or where to turn once theyre diagnosed with the disease.

'This is not the Alzheimers of 20 years ago. There are things we can do today and its not hopeless,' Carter said. 'There is no cure but there are exciting research projects emerging. You dont have to go through this alone.'

In the U.S. alone, more than 5 million people are living with the disease. And Carter said, numbers will go up 300 percent if 'we dont find a cure by 2050.'

'This disease is something so big that it has the potential to bankrupt our health system,' she said. 'These people lost their ability to speak years ago because no one listened but now, people with Alzheimers are speaking up for themselves. Changes are happening.'

Depending on family

From the moment Marroquin wakes up, she is surrounded by the children she raised.

For years, Marroquin lived with Rodas, his wife, Vickie, and their three children. Each spent hours caring for the woman they call 'Agui,' a woman they embrace in the most delicate way.

But there was a change in Marroquin, Rodas noticed, some time before getting diagnosed.

The pained memory still replays in Rodas mind, the day he sat with his mother in the car. A far away looked cast over her eyes.

'Who are you?' she asked him as he held her hand.

'I am your son, Edgar,' he replied. He held her hand tighter, but she resisted.

'At that moment, I looked out the window and started crying. It was terrible,' he admitted. 'She finally calmed down once I took her home and my wife comforted her. That was the first time, about six years ago.'

Alzheimers doesnt surface overnight and can take between 10 to 20 years before symptoms emerge.

And once it is diagnosed, Carter said, an Alzheimers patient could live between two and 20 years of life. The average, however, is eight years.

Marroquin now lives with Edgars brother, Max Rodas, and his family, in a room as bright as Marroquins white hair. But she is mainly cared for by her two daughters, Albi Rodas (with whom she shares a room) and Doris Morales, for reasons that involve feminine issues.

'Sometimes she has very, very bad days and yet, there are some good ones,' she said of her mother in a gentle voice. 'At night, she sleeps with the help of a pill but sometimes that doesnt even work. Her head hurts very much, she gets hungry, her bones hurt and she gets very irritable.'

Marroquin is part of the 70 percent of people with Alzheimers who live at home with family or friends, but the pressures could be overwhelming for those involved.

'Theres emotional pressure because their loved one is losing their personality and their short term memories is going. Theyre not the same mom or dad as before,' said Dr. Doug Freeman, a family practice physician at NorthBay Center for Primary Care in Green Valley. 'Then there is the financial burden. Its a huge problem that needs to be addressed.'

According to Carter, caregivers spend 8.5 billion hours of unpaid time caring for a patient with Alzheimers, valued to be roughly $83 million.

But for Marroquins family, she is worth every penny and moment spent.

'When I see her in pain, my frustration comes out because I want to make her comfortable and yet Im so extremely happy to have her, shes almost 88 years old!' Edgar Rodas said. 'She makes me laugh and still asks me if Im dressed properly for work. Im just thankful to God for giving her to us.'