Darin Bolken is looking forward to having his father, Billy, over to his house for Father’s Day dinner.

“‘We love having him over. Nothing has changed about that,” he says.

But a lot of things have changed for Darin and Billy. In just a few short years a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is robbing the elder Bolken of his memory and leaving the younger one wondering what to do next.

Darin grew up the oldest of three boys in Watford City, where Billy worked as a self-employed electrician. All three boys eventually moved to Fargo, but Darin says he stayed in touch with his father.

“He used to call me once or twice a week just to check in and say, ‘Hi.’ But about five years ago, he started to call me as much as three to four times a day and we’d have the same conversations. That’s when I first suspected something might be wrong,” Darin says.

But Darin says he didn’t think much of it. “I figured maybe he was just bored,” he says.

Billy decided to move to Fargo to be closer to Darin and his family—his wife, Lisa, son, Carter, now 7, and daughter, Hailey, now 4.

After spending more time with his dad, Darin noticed increasingly quirky behavior. For example, while moving him into his new place, Billy insisted that someone had taken all of his dresser drawers even though they weren’t missing. He’d also try getting into the wrong car and forget to take his medicine.

Darin was concerned enough that he brought Billy, a Vietnam vet, to the VA Medical Center to get his medications sorted out and to address his memory issues.


Billy Bolken, left, jokes around with his son Darin, right, at Sheyenne Crossings in West Fargo, N.D. on Friday, June 12, 2015

“They weren’t overly concerned. They said, ‘He’s getting older.’ But at the time he was only 62. I thought that was way too young to have these kinds of issues,” he says.

So Darin started keeping a journal of his dad’s behavior, a log of the out-of-the-ordinary things his dad would say and do. The next time he took his dad to the doctor, he showed them the journal. Doctors were concerned enough to order CT scans, MRIs and cognitive tests.

“They gave him a memory test. Simple questions. ‘What’s 100 minus 97?’ He only got 13 out of 30 questions right. He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s,” he says.

Alzheimer’s is considered “early-onset” if the patient is under the age of 65. About 200,000 Americans have been diagnosed with it, most in their 40s and 50s, but some as young as their 30s. It accounts for just 5 percent of all Alzheimer’s cases, and it often progresses more quickly than older-onset cases.

Doctors advised Darin to seek 24-hour care for his father, so Darin got his dad set up in assisted living at Eventide Sheyenne Crossings in West Fargo. After some concerns about Billy potentially wandering away, he was put into the memory care unit there.

Darin and his family visit as much as possible. Lisa brings crossword puzzles to help Billy exercise his brain.

“It was actually kind of funny. Lisa was asking him to help her with some very easy questions. ‘What’s a four-letter word for this or that?’ Easy stuff. She was just trying to get him thinking. When she left, he said to me, ‘We need to get your wife a dictionary, she’s not very good at crossword puzzles,’ ” he says.

Darin says he’s glad that for most of his illness, his dad has kept his light-hearted personality. It’s only been recently that he’s getting more belligerent and angry.

“That really scares me. That’s not him. So that’s been hard.”

Darin is also concerned because of the strong genetic link to early-onset Alzheimer’s. According to the National Institute on Aging, most cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is inherited, the result of a gene mutation. If a parent has early-onset and is carrying that gene mutation, there is about a 50-50 chance his or her child will inherit the mutation and develop Alzheimer’s—a thought that is always with Darin.

“I don’t want to put my family through what I’ve been through with my dad, and I don’t want to develop the kind of rage I’ve seen lately from him,” he says.

So he’s doing what he can to try to prevent it—eating right and exercising, since studies have shown a connection between poor cardiovascular health and Alzheimer’s and dementia. He says his uncertain future with the disease is also helping him be a better dad.

“I think going through this has made me more family-oriented. I’m spending as much time as possible with my kids,” he says.

In the meantime, he’s coping with a dad who isn’t getting any better. Billy’s last memory test was even worse than his previous one. He answered just three out of 30 questions correctly. Darin says it’s all going so fast.

“I’d say to myself, ‘Where was this all coming from?’ To go downhill so fast when just a few years ago, we didn’t think anything was wrong. To me it’s been three years, but he might have been dealing with this for a long time and coping with it.” he says.

Darin says he can’t help but spend a lot of time worrying about what will happen in two, three and four years. But Lisa keeps him focused.

“She always tells me, ‘Don’t worry about the future, worry about the now. Make sure he is happy and taken care of now. We will deal with the future when it gets here,’ ” he says.

Source: InForum