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Pick of the Day: The toll of Alzheimer's

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Alzheimer's Awareness stamp. Photo courtesy of United States Postal Service

I think most reporters would agree: The only thing more intimidating than an empty notebook is a towering pile of filled ones. From the scribbled notes that represent weeks or months or years of reporting -- a tangle of quotes, moments and observations -- somehow a single story or series must be sewn seamlessly together.

It’s a daunting task, but when done well, it has produced some of the most memorable stories. It’s also a dwindling form of journalism as newsrooms downsize and fewer reporters have the luxury to spend vast amounts of time chasing a single subject.

Still, at least for the time being, ambitious examples can be found. One that comes to mind is a series that ran recently in Newsday and focuses on Alzheimer’s. For it, reporter Denise Bonilla spent about two years following six families, witnessing intimate moments and chronicling not only the disease’s impact on its victims, but also on their loved ones.

Here are some excerpts from a piece that focuses on the family of Mike Henley, who at 42 can no longer talk or care for himself. Instead, his wife Karen, and their teenage children, ages 14 and 16, have become his caregivers.

She finishes preparing Mike's breakfast of eggs, sausage, cheese and hash browns, all of which she throws into a blender and purees to the consistency of baby food. She mashes up a banana and mixes in his five medications and vitamins. She thickens his Gatorade with a powder, which helps him swallow it: Mike will choke on regular liquids.

Next she moves on to his lunch: Boston Market honey-roasted chicken, which the blender transforms into a bowl of beige mush that she garnishes with butter and syrup.

Karen watches Courtney and Brandon head out the door. She is concerned about what caregiving is doing to them. Now that they are teenagers, they want to go out with friends and develop a sense of independence. But their presence is almost constantly required at home.

***
Courtney comes home from school and walks over to her father, giving him a kiss.

"Hey Daddio," Courtney says as she throws an arm around Mike's shoulders. "Hey buddy, how are you doing? I love you buddy," she says, searching his eyes for some kind of recognition.

At 16, Courtney is an improbable mix of giddy teen and serious adult. She speaks rapidly, her hands fidgety and uncertain. From behind her dark-rimmed glasses, her eyes reach out eagerly, continually seeking response. But they always dart back to her father, alert for a long cough, a mysterious moan or an unusual muscle spasm.

*****
Karen inspects the big toe on Mike's left foot, which has been red. She takes off his sweatpants and begins rubbing his feet, looking for any sign of wincing, the only indication she can get that he might be in pain. They lay him on the bed in his blue adult diaper - his "blundies" or blue undies, as they call them. Courtney gets in beside him as she and Karen rub and stretch Mike's arms and legs, trying to prevent atrophy in his muscles.

Karen takes a wet washcloth and rubs it over his face. She hands another cloth to Courtney and together they clean Mike's entire body. As they do so, they inspect him, looking for any signs of distress or infection. Karen puts on latex gloves and they turn him over while she removes the dirty diaper. All the while, mother and daughter discuss Courtney's day at school.

The phone rings and Brandon comes in to deliver the receiver to Courtney. "Can I call you back?" she asks her friend from her spot lying next to her father. "We're just in the middle of getting my dad ready."

The full series can be found here on Newsday’s website, which recently began requiring viewers to pay for access.

By Theresa Vargas  | December 29, 2009; 8:05 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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