Renée Harmon, MD Teaches Caregivers Through Memoir of Spouse’s Early Onset Alzheimer’s

About Renée Harmon - Riding the Waves of Alzheimer's

Surfing the Waves of Alzheimer's - Renée HarmonBy Renée Harmon

I’ve never successfully surfed before, and on my one and only attempt, I dislocated my shoulder. It happened on a family vacation to Costa Rica, but it was not the worst thing that happened on that trip. During the course of the week, I began to realize that Harvey, my husband, couldn’t follow our guide’s simple instructions, became lost on the resort property, and was constantly rummaging through his luggage looking for misplaced items. When he couldn’t recall our daughters’ birth years and couldn’t calculate them, I knew in my gut that he had some form of dementia. My previously perfectly balanced life was upended.

Harvey and I had constructed a work-life balance that beautifully suited our professional and family goals. We were both family physicians, creating, developing, and sharing a two-person medical practice. We alternated days at the office with days at home with our young daughters. As our daughters grew, so did the practice, so that by the time the girls were in elementary school, the practice could support the both of us being there until one or the other of us left for carpool duty. This arrangement gave each of us time and space to pursue our individual interests, too.

Harvey was nearly fifty years old at the time of our Costa Rica trip, and nine months later, he was officially diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease and had to retire. In that instant, our balanced lifestyle shifted dramatically as I became a full-time solo physician, primary parent to two teenaged daughters, manager of our household, and caregiver to my husband. I was going to have to learn to surf the waves that were surely coming and keep myself upright and balanced.

Surfing the Waves of Alzheimer’s: Principles of Caregiving That Kept Me Upright is the result of journaling that started as soon as I realized that we were headed toward a diagnosis of dementia for Harvey. It became a way for me to pour out my emotions and to chronicle the changes I observed in Harvey.

When I was asked to speak to a local Alzheimer’s Foundation event, I pulled out my journals and tried to construct a coherent talk. By organizing it around principles of caregiving, I gave my speech some structure, and my book was born.

I call the book a teaching memoir, combining a how-to caregiving guide with a traditional memoir of our family’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease. Because I am a physician, and communicating effectively about good health practices is a vital part of that job, I couldn’t let the book be purely memoir. And instead of a specific step-by-step handbook, I chose to discuss overarching principles of caregiving. Each chapter is titled one of these principles, such as “It’s Better to Be Kind Than Correct.” Each principle is illustrated by stories, then a discussion of that principle follows, and ends with practices that the reader may choose to complete.

It is my hope that readers will not only experience our compelling story, but also come away with knowledge of caregiving principles that will bring them to a place of greater balance.

Renée-HarmonAbout the Author

Renée Brown Harmon, MD, is a recently retired family physician in Birmingham, Alabama. After eighteen years of sharing a thriving medical practice, her husband, Harvey, was forced to retire after a diagnosis of younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Harmon cared for her husband for the eight years of his illness while maintaining their medical practice and rearing their two teenaged daughters. The challenges of caregiving while working and parenting full-time led her to a deep appreciation for all caregivers.

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2 Responses

  1. Renee,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, and I am really learning from your postings. Both Leslie, my husband, and I are in our early 80’s, and we have been blessed with good health. However, my sweetie has some memory problems.

    Say hello to your beautiful mother, Marnie. She knows us as Thompson Elementary principals. She was an awesome gifted ed. teacher. We love her!

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