When we met, Bella was working three jobs, caring for two kids and commuting between two North Country communities an hour apart.
She didn’t sleep much and didn’t seem to need to, but now, as we confront the symptoms of her younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I’m haunted by stories that say a pattern of disrupted sleep may lead to the disease.
She had then what seemed an unending capacity to push past fatigue, a quality I envied and sometimes resented.
She went to school, first to finish her two-year degree, then to get a four-year degree, then for a master’s degree and a teaching certificate.
She continued to work while in school and while the first two kids grew up and we adopted two more. She worked weekends and overnights at a residential facility for people with disabilities; walked the mile or two between our house in downtown Glens Falls and her job in the kitchen at Olive Garden; and then, through volunteering, proved her worth to the Domestic Violence Project at Catholic Charities and got a full-time job there.
Sleep continued to hold a low spot on her list of priorities.
Fourteen years ago, she was hired as the campus coordinator for the Ticonderoga branch of North Country Community College, and since then she has been counselor, party planner and all-around driving force on campus.
She has helped scores of young people get degrees and find jobs. She understands North Country kids who have no money and want to work their way into better circumstances, because she was one. Out of eight children in her family, she’s the only one who went to college.
At 59, Alzheimer’s disease is forcing her to walk away from the work that has helped define who she is.
Retirement, which we expected in a few years, will happen for her later this month.
She could stay longer, but it’s a struggle, not only to do the job but to persuade her supervisors she can.
Employers can put in ramps or allow a guide dog to help a disabled worker, but making accommodations for a brain that is sometimes malfunctioning is a bigger challenge.
Bella’s supervisors have been helpful with her retirement process, which means we have it better than other people we’ve learned about recently.
One man we have met is hiding his diagnosis, because he’s certain he’ll get fired if it’s revealed.
Now Bella is talking about the things she’ll do when she’s not working: repainting rooms, going to the Y, volunteering, spending more time with our dog and bunny.
We’re talking also about the things she won’t have to do any more, like get up at 5:30 for the dreary trek north to Ticonderoga, or drive home in the dark, honking her horn or blasting the radio out open windows to warn the deer.
We take our silver linings wherever we find them. For one thing, she should finally be able to get some sleep.