When Alzheimer's Steals Your Appetite, Remember To Laugh | KUOW News and Information

When Alzheimer's Steals Your Appetite, Remember To Laugh

Jul 25, 2015

In this installment of NPR's series Inside Alzheimer's, we hear from Greg O'Brien about losing his sense of taste and smell, and how he's learning there's much more to a good meal than food. O'Brien, a longtime journalist in Cape Cod, Mass., was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease in 2009.

Greg O'Brien has always loved summer grilling with his family on the back porch of his home on Cape Cod, picking up hamburgers or that day's catch to savor with sweet corn and ripe tomatoes. But as his short-term memory has begun to fail, Alzheimer's disease has also begun to deaden his appetite.

Over the past few years, Greg has largely lost his sense of smell, and he can no longer taste most foods. His favorite dishes, he says, "taste like rolled up newspaper."

In fact, every part of putting food on the table has gotten tougher, from driving to the store, to buying groceries, to cooking.


Interview Highlights

On going grocery shopping

In Alzheimer's, now I'm losing my sense of smell and my sense of taste. I used to relish fresh fish and, in the summertime on Cape Cod, right off the dock, the swordfish. But now it all tastes the same.

I'm in the car now, a little reluctant to go inside this big supermarket because last time I saw a good friend of mine in there, and I had something hidden behind my back. It was a case of Depends, because at times I lose my continence. Good buddy, he saw it and he was trying to laugh it through. He said "Greg, you got a problem?" I said, "Eh, it depends!"

It's OK to laugh. You've got to have a sense of humor in Alzheimer's. It's OK to laugh.

On how his sense of taste has changed

I used to love tomatoes, sweet corn. [Now] it tastes like toilet paper sometimes. I get Diet Coke or Diet Sprite. I usually have a few swigs during the six or seven times I'm up at night. One thing I can kind of taste are these [frozen] fruit bars. And I really can't taste them — but they feel cold, and that's good.

When memory loss complicates shopping

While at the grocery store, Greg gets a phone call from his son.

Greg: Hey, Conor.

Conor: Did you get my text?

Greg: No, what did it say?

Conor: Get some chicken breast; get some Advil PM; get some good salsa and good chips and, uh, that's it. Oh! And then a little thing of ketchup. And that's it.

Greg: Ketchup! Condiments. OK. All right. Love you! Bye.

(call ends)

Oh [expletive and a laugh], I just forgot what he told me. All I remember now is the ketchup. Maybe I'll get two bottles.

On dealing with Alzheimer's at a small town market

You know it's a nice thing about Cape Cod: Everybody knows everybody. Sometimes it kind of sucks, because everybody knows everybody else's business. And everybody knows I'm slowly losing my marbles.

But they care.

On the sweetness of summer evenings at home.

Sitting on the back deck — a little late, 9:30 — nobody else is here. Conor's watching the Red Sox; my wife and daughter are on their way back from Baltimore. And I'm kind of in my element — which actually makes me feel pretty good.


Greg O'Brien and his family will share more of their experiences with Alzheimer's in coming installments of Inside Alzheimer's on Weekend All Things Considered, and here on Shots.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Greg O'Brien was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in 2009. As he's lost his memory, he's also lost his appetite, which complicates pretty much everything about putting food on the table. Greg took an audio recorder on a recent trip to the grocery store, when things didn't quite go as planned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREG O'BRIEN: In Alzheimer's now, I'm losing my sense of smell and my sense of taste. And I used to relish fresh fish and, you know, summertime on Cape Cod, right off the dock, the swordfish. But now it all tastes the same. It kind of tastes like rolled-up newspaper to me. I'm in the car now, a little reluctant to go inside this big supermarket because last time I saw a good friend of mine in there, and I had something hidden behind my back in a bag. It was a case of Depends because at times, I lose my continence. And good buddy, he saw it. He was trying to laugh it through and said, Greg, you've got a problem? I said, eh, depends. It's OK to laugh. You've got to have a sense of humor in Alzheimer's. It's OK to laugh.

All right, first thing, over to the salad place because I don't taste anything. I used to love tomatoes - tastes like toilet paper sometimes. All right, what next? You know, none of it looks good - not disparaging the supermarket, just my brain - threw a few cookies in when no one's looking. Now, I get Diet Coke or Diet Sprite. I usually have a few swigs during the six or seven times I'm up at night. One thing I can kind of taste, only 'cause it's cold, are these fruit bars. And I really can't taste them, but they feel cold, and that's good. I think I'm done, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

G. O'BRIEN: Hey, Conor.

CONOR O'BRIEN: Did you get my text?

G. O'BRIEN: No. What was your text?

C. O'BRIEN: Get some chicken breasts. Get some Advil PM. Get some good salsa and good chips and that's it and then a little thing of ketchup.

G. O'BRIEN: Ketchup, condiments, OK - all right - love you. OK, bye. (Laughter) Oh [expletive] I just forgot what he told me. All I remember now is the ketchup. Maybe I'll get two bottles. You know, that's the nice thing about Cape Cod. Everybody knows everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thanks, Greg.

G. O'BRIEN: OK, take care. How you doing? Good to see you.

Sometimes it kind of sucks 'cause everyone knows everybody else's business. And everybody knows I'm slowly losing my marbles, but they care.

How you doing, Conor? I kind of forgot a little bit of what you told me. But I got stuff, so - I got the ketchup. All right, where'd I put the spatula? All right, let's see what we've got here.

We're done. The grill is a - somewhat of a success.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE ALARM)

G. O'BRIEN: There goes the fire alarm.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE ALARM)

G. O'BRIEN: I think we - nice way to end the night, with a good Cape Cod summer rain to put the fire out in the house that I almost started trying to cook the buns, sitting on the back deck a little late - 9:30. Nobody else is here. Conor's watching the Red Sox. My wife and daughter are on their way back from Baltimore. And I'm kind of in my element, which actually makes me feel pretty good.

RATH: That's Greg O'Brien. He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2009. You can hear previous stories from the series Inside Alzheimer's at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.