By Sean McClelland
Dayton Daily News
FAIRBORN, Ohio – He makes contact other days, but one day is special. Every Sunday, Don MacAdam telephones his parents in the village of Morell, located on Prince Edward Island, the smallest Canadian province.
The calls are getting tougher; Alzheimer’s disease is killing his dad.
“Now when I call, Dad doesn’t remember what we talked about the week before, that’s for darn sure,” said MacAdam, co-owner, general manager and head coach of the Dayton Bombers.
Carl MacAdam, 87, was diagnosed about a year and a half ago. He is drifting away, as Alzheimer’s patients do, and his son can do little.
“Two summers ago, when I was home, he was OK 90 to 95 percent of the time,” Don said. “Now it’s 50 percent at best. It’s just … sad.”
Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disorder that destroys memory and the ability to reason, communicate and, eventually, function. According to the National Institute on Aging, at least 4.5 million Americans are afflicted.
An exact cause is not known, but researchers believe Alzheimer’s develops because of a complex series of events in the brain over time.
The elder MacAdam is primarily cared for by his wife, Helen, who just turned 80. She knows something about challenges; she has been a liver cancer survivor for about 12 years. Don’s brother, David, his only sibling, lives nearby.
“It’s really tough on Mom,” Don said. “Dad’s really bad in the morning. He gets better as the day goes on. He’ll be up at 4 a.m. putting on his shirt and tie, getting ready to go to Sunday Mass — and it’s Tuesday.”
Robbed of vitality
The MacAdam name is big on the island. Carl and Helen owned and operated a restaurant in Morell for about 30 years, and Don recalls his dad as energetic, vital, always working. A carpenter in his spare time, Carl even helped build the family home.
“The thing is, he’s so healthy,” Don said. “He’s got a great appetite, looks great. His long-term memory is very good — he remembers serving in World War II.
“But he’s just not there.”
Neither is the Village Diner anymore, a once-thriving spot between the PEI capital of Charlottetown and the smaller town of Souris.
Hockey and food service had been the family passions. Don was on a championship team in high school with his brother and a cousin, Al MacAdam, who went on to play 11 years in the National Hockey League and now scouts for the Buffalo Sabres.
Growing up, Don and David — who is retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — spent most of their non-hockey hours at the restaurant working and listening to their dad talk about his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Work was not a four-letter word for us,” Don said. “It was just what you did. Nothing was given to you.”
Don has carried that work ethic with him throughout a long coaching career that has spanned several leagues, levels and continents.
One of his joys had been to fly in his parents for visits wherever he coached. Those days are gone.
‘A lot on his plate’
Bombers players marvel at how Don juggles his various roles with the hockey team. Those who know about his family situation marvel even more.
“It’s obviously an unfortunate thing, but he comes to work every day and doesn’t seem to let it affect him,” veteran forward Matt Herneisen said. “He’s got a lot on his plate, but he’s dealing with it pretty well.”
Don won’t call himself an Alzheimer’s expert, but he is immersed in the literature and knows these are his dad’s last days.
“He got on a new drug last month,” he said, “but I think it’s almost to the point now that at the very best they can just slow it down.”
When returning for visits, Don is taken aback by how indiscriminate the disease can be, such as when he learned this past summer that a high school acquaintance had been “put in a home.”
Scarier, although Alzheimer’s is not thought to be hereditary, is how it seems to run in families. Carl is one of 13 children. Two of his brothers have the disease.
It’s enough to make a concerned son and nephew think about campaigning for whatever form of stem-cell research might provide better understanding and perhaps lead to a cure.
“If so many people, it seems, can be helped, then it doesn’t make any sense not to help them,” Don said. “The reasons for opposing it just don’t seem realistic enough to me.”
If you take anything from Don’s story, he wants it to be this:
“Just make sure the disease doesn’t get others. Don’t let (caregivers) get worn down with it. My brother and I talk about this all the time. The disease is going to take Dad, but we can’t let it take Mom, too.”