Constable: Former Glenview firefighter's early dementia diagnosis spurs wonderful adventures
Former Glenview firefighter handles early onset dementia with humor -- and it leads to adventure
Before Brian Gaughan starts talking about his younger-onset dementia, the diagnosis beats him to it.
"Part of this disease, the way it affects me, is I will think of something I want to say and it makes perfect sense," says Gaughan, 62, a former Arlington Heights police officer and Glenview firefighter and paramedic. "But when it comes out of my mouth, it doesn't."
Such as this conversation, which alarms his wife.
"Today, instead of saying, 'I have an appointment with Burt Constable,' he said, 'The police are coming over,'" Judy Gaughan says.
His brain adds, subtracts and mangles things at times. In the shower, he washes his body with soap, shampoos his hair and brushes his teeth. But he can't remember which of these he has done.
"I'll be in the shower long enough, it's almost like my alarm," Gaughan says. "When the water gets cold, I must have done all three."
As do many people with early signs of dementia, Gaughan initially thought he was just getting forgetful and made excuses for his cognitive mishaps. Forced to prematurely retire in 2011 from his firefighter/paramedic career because of complications after injuring his knee and foot in a fall, Gaughan landed a job as a state investigator. He needed to take trains and buses to commute from his Arlington Heights home to his new job in the city.
"I'd look out the bus window and have no clue where I was. I chalked it up as being absent-minded," Gaughan says. "One night on the way home from work, I ended up in Wilmette."
Figuring the stress of his three-hour round trip every day caused his cognitive issues, he took a similar job in Des Plaines, a 15-minute drive from his house.
"A couple times I got lost. I've lived in the suburbs for decades, but I'd get lost," he says, adding that he also noticed changes in his work day. "I still produced good work, but it took me longer."
Asked when he realized those issues were the result of younger-onset dementia, Gaughan strokes his beard as if in deep thought.
"I forget," he says, pausing just a beat before bursting into a laugh. "Nah, I'm just kidding. That's really how I deal with this. If I wasn't laughing, I'd be crying."
One of the joys of their marriage is "we cook all weekend long," Gaughan says. They go out Friday evening or Saturday morning and buy all the food they need for themselves, and to make meals they deliver to homeless people. He woke up one Saturday and asked his wife if she was ready to go shopping.
"My husband always makes jokes. I think he's making a joke with me," says Judy Gaughan, who told him that not only had they finished shopping the night before, but he drove.
Gaughan thought she was the one joking.
"I go to the refrigerator to show her the vacant refrigerator, and it's stocked," Gaughan says.
"That really worried me, and I started asking questions," says Judy Gaughan. As a registered nurse, who served as director of nursing at a suburban nursing home, she often dealt with dementia patients. She met Gaughan on the job.
"In my paramedic time, I'd frequently deal with people with dementia," he says, adding some were rude and argumentative, even violent. "That bothers me most, that I will be a jerk to people, and that's not me."
A friend texted him that her father was far "happier and nicer" after he was diagnosed with dementia. "I keep that on my phone," Gaughan says, calling his cellphone a "lifesaving device."
"I take pictures of everything to remember things," Gaughan says. Some memories are unforgettable.
"It's so strange. I can remember where I sat in my fifth-grade class," Gaughan says. But he can't remember that he and Judy were married in the Grand Tetons, or what year his beloved father died of Alzheimer's disease.
"It's like a movie where I leave the room every 15 minutes," Gaughan says of his memories. "There are all these gaps in it."
"He became involved in that support group, and we asked if he'd do some public speaking for us because he's so articulate and has such an interesting story," says Melissa Tucker, director of family services for the state chapter.
Gaughan grew up on Chicago's Northwest Side. When his parents moved to Arlington Heights, he spent his senior year at Arlington High School, graduating as a member of the Class of 1977. At 19, he was studying criminal justice at Harper College. Too young to be a police officer in the Chicago area, he saw that Davenport, Iowa, was hiring police officers at age 18. He took the test and got hired. After four years in Iowa, he landed a job with the Arlington Heights police, where he spent five years.
As an undercover officer investigating drugs, Gaughan had an epiphany.
"I wanted to become a policeman because I wanted to help people. The longer I did police work, the bigger idea came to me that I really wasn't helping. That stuff started to weigh on me more and more and more," says Gaughan, who found another public service option. "Firefighters and paramedics were doing good for people, and I thought, 'You know what? That's my career.'"
He also took on causes, speaking out on law enforcement issues, urging the legalization of medical marijuana and serving as president of his firefighters' union. "I love lobbying," says Gaughan, who does that now for people with younger-onset dementia.
"The fear and the stigma prevent people from pursuing a diagnosis," Tucker says. "People who do get the diagnosis early enough can be empowered."
While there is no cure, Gaughan is taking a drug that helps fighter pilots focus.
"I'm working my way toward being a fighter pilot. I've got the drug treatment down," he says with one of his frequent laughs. He is taking a pass on a controversial infusion drug not covered by insurance. "It's $58,000 a year, and you don't know if it works," he says.
Unable to follow GPS directions, he recently decided not to drive alone because of fears his wife "won't see me for four days and they'll find me six states over."
Gaughan says his dementia is "bad, but it's not bad-bad," He rattles off the names and ages of his five adult children: Erin, 39; Brian, 38; Kevin, 35; Patrick, 33; Kelly, 31. The couple also spend time with Judy's children: Jorge, 40; Mandy, 38; and Macy, 28. Several of their offspring are nurses or work in the medical field. They have 15 grandchildren between the two families.
"Until very recently, I didn't have a bright outlook on it," Gaughan says of his diagnosis. "I'm really trying to change that and focus on all I can do."
The couple bought a 19-foot camper and pulled it behind their Honda Pilot on a cross-country pilgrimage to the West Coast for the birth of their 14th grandchild, and they made it back home in time for the birth of grandchild No. 15. Gaughan celebrated his 62nd birthday with his daughter and four grandchildren at an outdoor concert in San Francisco, and spent time in Arizona with all five of his kids to celebrate the wedding of a son.
"We saw a lot of cool places," Gaughan says, noting that he wouldn't have made that effort without the dementia diagnosis. People with Alzheimer's disease typically die within eight to 12 years. Gaughan is focused on living the best life he can.
"It lets you know your timer has started," Gaughan says. "This is your wake-up call."
10 early warning signs of Alzheimer's disease1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
4. Confusion with time or place
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
8. Decreased or poor judgment
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood and personality
Enter your ZIP code at communityresourcefinder.org to find a workshop near you, or phone (800) 272-3900 for more information. Courtesy of Alzheimer's Association at www.alz.org.