Escape from Vietnam: A Refugee‘s Story of the American Dream

I spoke my first words on a boat: “milk,” “cockroach,” and “itchy.” An unusual toddler vocabulary, perhaps, but not surprising considering that I spent the second year of my life on a freighter with thousands of other people, a floating petri dish of equal parts vomit, diarrhea, desperation, and hope. Every inch of that boat teemed with refugees: the cargo hold, hallways, and deck. Even the captain’s steering room had ceased to be a sanctuary.

I am an immigrant from Vietnam. I left the land of my birth in 1978 — just shy of my first birthday — and arrived in the U.S. a few weeks after I turned two. All of us on that boat, and hundreds of thousands of others, fled for the same reason: to escape the oppression of the communist regime. It took us more than one full year to arrive in the United States, most of that time spent on an over-packed freight ship smuggling 2,300 other refugees in a cargo hold full of festering flour and one functioning restroom.

Like many ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, my family members were merchants. My maternal grandma, who had fled to Vietnam from British-held Hong Kong as a teen to escape the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, had a fabric stall at Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market. My dad had a factory that manufactured shampoo and detergent. After the Vietnam War officially ended in April of 1975 with the fall of Southern Vietnam to the Northern Vietnamese communists, the new regime stripped our family of its livelihood, confiscating our family businesses and much of our savings. They also introduced a series of new currencies — each time capping the sum families were permitted to exchange. Anyone found with more was punished, the money confiscated.

Years later, my grandma would tell of counting her life savings, exchanging the maximum allowed, and burning the remainder. She described watching her tears fall into the flames as her money burned; just burning and crying, because what else was there to do?

Early in 1977, the year before we fled Vietnam, my mom was six months pregnant with me, and my father was in jail for “unpatriotic acts” after commissioning the building of a small junk boat he’d hoped to use for our escape. My mom visited my dad in his cell so he could help name me. He must have had money on his mind, as my name translated means gold and jade.

My grandfather had just passed away, but my maternal grandma still had five kids at home to raise. She was 4 feet 9 inches on a tall day and a breadwinning matriarch before her time. She negotiated an escape route for us on that Panamanian freight ship, but it would come at a steep cost.

There were 19 of us in total in my nuclear and extended family. Passage on the ship was purchased with luong, 1.2-ounce 24-karat gold bars. All told, 154 luong — more than $135,000 in today’s dollars — were required to smuggle my family out of Vietnam. Those bars were the culmination of a lifetime of work, coated with love and stamped with faith, molded into 24 karats of black market gold. Which is how we found ourselves part of the mass exodus that would come to be known as the “Vietnamese Boat People.”

After being denied entry at the ports of Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Brunei for temporary asylum, we floated aimlessly at sea, waiting. My mom watched over my 2-year-old brother and me while we all sat atop a 2-foot-by-2-foot table. Another family lived in a permanent crouch ­underneath. All around us, families staked their claims to plots of floor, sleeping upright, backs propping up backs. If someone needed to do their business or go in search of food, family members would stand vigil over the hard-won territory. Somehow, even as we were reduced to human freight, the framework of family held, in the form of “Go, I got your back.”

Eventually our freighter docked in the Philippines, but we were not allowed to disembark — all of the existing camps were full.

After a full 10 months at sea, we were finally transferred to a makeshift refugee camp on a Philippine island. My mom set me on the ground to roam and was pleased to discover that I could run.
At the camp, my parents and extended family underwent an arduous vetting process that included background checks and physical screenings with blood tests. Then came the search for a sponsoring country. A refugee who could claim a relative in another country was given priority there. Barring that, where you wound up was a crapshoot by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

My grandmother described watching her tears fall into the flames as her money burned.

My parents, my brother, and I lingered in this system for several months until a church group in Minnesota agreed to sponsor us. In one fell swoop, we were whisked from the humidity of the tropics to the subzero temperatures of a Midwestern December. The commitment and logistics of sponsoring and providing for a refugee family are significant, so the church group shared the responsibilities for clothing, sheltering, and integrating us into American life. One group of volunteers met us at the airport with donated secondhand winter jackets. Other volunteers helped us find and furnish a small two-bedroom home in the suburbs, while still others worked on getting sponsorship for the rest of our family, until all 19 of us were reunited.

Our family also relied on public social programs as we adjusted and assimilated into American society. My parents enrolled my brother and me in a Head Start preschool while they studied English, passed the GED, and took job-training classes. For a year or so, we lived on welfare and food stamps, supplemented by baffling 10-pound blocks of bright orange government cheese.

Within two years, my mom spoke English well enough to take a job in a bank, the start of a 30-year career that became our modest family livelihood. When it came time for my brother and me to think about college, we benefited from the expectation in our family that we would go. We had as role models close relatives who had recently graduated. But we also relied on programs like need-based grants, low-interest loans, and work-study programs.

We hear so much talk about individual resilience, self-reliance, and the proverbial bootstraps being the ingredients of the American Dream, and I’d like to think my family exhibited those traits in our extraordinary journey. But there is a lot more that goes into the American Dream’s promise of providing people an opportunity to improve their lives and to contribute to this great nation. Nothing exists in a vacuum, after all, and certainly not opportunity. We all rely on the springboard provided by our extended families, our communities (like those Minnesota church volunteers who made our American story possible), and, yes, government-­backed immigration policies and programs like those that let us enter, fed us, and then helped us obtain an education.

Now, more than three decades and a generation after we fled Vietnam, my younger child has just turned two — the age I was when I arrived in the U.S. Her first words? Milk, mama, and dada.

Kim Luu has M.Eng. and B.S. Environmental Engineering degrees from MIT and UCLA. She works in the environmental sustainability field in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and two kids. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

This article is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives. 

Hospice Girl Friday | Planning for ‘After’

Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.

Most of the conversations I have with hospice patients or their family members are focused on the past and instigated by me. I like to learn about the patients, and I want family members to remember who their loved ones were before the shadow of disease began to darken their lives. Recently I had a surprising conversation about the future with the husband of a patient who was admitted at the end of my Friday morning shift. The patient was Bernice Scott. Seventy-one years old. Heart disease.

Mrs. Scott’s husband Robert came in with her, toting her favorite red-striped crocheted afghan and her medical records. I greeted him at the front desk.

“My wife is in pain and needs medicine right away,” he said as he watched the stretcher carrying his wife disappear into room one.

“The nurses are with your wife right now. They’re going to do an assessment and talk to the doctor about medication right away,” I said, trying to sound assuring.

His brow did not unfurl. “Where is the doctor?” he asked, looking around.

I walked around the desk to guide Mr. Scott to the sofa. “The doctor is with another patient right now. May I get you a cup of coffee?” He shook his head no as he lowered himself onto the sofa. I tried to warm him up with small talk, but he was too far away to respond with anything other than single syllables. I could tell he did not want me there.

Most patients come to the hospice in crisis. And while hospice is meant to make dying patients comfortable at the end of their lives, one of my roles is to help make their family members and loved ones comfortable as well. Unfortunately, at that moment there did not seem to be anything I could do to ease Mr. Scott’s emotional pain, so I sat down next to him for just a moment and said, “Your wife is in good hands. I’ll let you know when the nurses are finished, and if I can help you with anything in the meanwhile, please ask.”

Once the nurses finished in room one I gave the Scotts some time to get used to their new surroundings before knocking on the door. When I walked into the room Mrs. Scott was lying flat with her eyes closed. She must have heard me come in because her eyes popped open and she asked for peanut butter and marmalade. She must have been feeling better if she was asking for food.

When I came in the following week, I asked the nurse for an update on Mrs. Scott and was told that she was sleeping a lot and had stopped eating the previous day, which is usually a sign of impending death. When I walked into her room, Mrs. Scott seemed to be comfortable, taking long, deep breaths as she slept. Mr. Scott was sitting in a chair next to the bed with a book on his lap, which he closed when I walked in. This time he was ready to talk.

“Coming here was the best thing we could have done,” he said. “My wife is much better, out of pain. Now it is just a matter of nature taking its course.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I said. “How are you doing?”

“Also better, but I am going to miss her.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Forty-two years. All of them good. Great, in fact,” he said, smiling. “I retired in 2005 so we could travel and go to museums. But five years ago my wife got sick and encouraged me to consider working again in some way, so I went back to school for a teaching degree. Now I teach college classes Monday through Thursday, which will keep me busy. I will go to a museum or a lecture on Friday. Weekends will probably be difficult at first, and I am not looking forward to the quiet that will greet me when I come home and turn the key in the door. Also I have a friend who is a widower and likes to travel, so I said I would go wherever he’d like. And I’ve been seeing a psychologist, which has been very helpful.”

Instead of talking about the past, it was important for Mr. Scott to explain to me–and possibly reassure himself–that he was prepared, that he would be okay after his wife passed. In the hospice we never know when death will come, we only know that it will. That moment often defines ‘before’ and ‘after’ for the people who are left behind.

I have talked to many family members who have told me they can’t imagine a different life or will not be able to go on without their loved one. I try to help them conjure positive memories that might help temper their dreaded grief. Mrs. Scott’s husband knew that she would pass away first, leaving him to forge a new routine and fill the silences her absence would bring. I admire the way he looked to the future and systematically put together a plan for ‘after,’ which also seemed to help him cope with his beloved wife’s last days and moment of death.

Previous post: Stay True to Yourself in the Face of Illness Next post: Coming Soon!

Bonus: For more on end of life care from a physician’s perspective, see How Doctors Die from our March/April 2013 issue.

Hospice Girl Friday | ‘Discussing Your Advanced Medical Directive’

Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.

I knew the in-patient unit would be busy on Christmas so I signed on to take an extra shift. There were already five patients when I got there and a sixth was expected. Around noon, Holly Gold was rolled into the hospice accompanied by two of her daughters. One of them was fighting back tears and unable to respond when I said hello. The other introduced herself as Joanne, who told me she held power of attorney for her mother’s healthcare and that their mother needed pain relief immediately.

“She is suffering from heart failure and has been comfortable at home,” Joanne said. Her words came out quickly, probably powered by pent up anxiety. “Last night she took a bad turn and hasn’t stopped moaning and crying. She needs to be admitted. Is the doctor here?” Her eyes darted around as she looked for a medical professional. I don’t think my volunteer badge offered the kind of comfort she needed.

Many family members panic when they first arrive at the hospice because patients usually come here in some sort of physical distress. About half are already receiving hospice care at home so their family members are familiar with how it works, but Mrs. Gold and her daughters were new to hospice. The doctor had warned me that they were very concerned about their beloved mother. “The family is very close,” she had said, and she asked me to convey a calming confidence when they arrived.

“The doctor called right before you walked in,” I said to Joanne. “She wanted me to tell you she will be here within 30 minutes. In the meanwhile, we are going to get your mother settled. The nurses are in with her right now. I promise you, she’s in good hands.”

Joanne and her sister both thanked me, but I could tell Joanne was still nervous by the way she fired out questions. “Don’t we need two doctors to verify that my mother has less than six months to live? Do we have to wait until that happens to start treatment? Do you need a copy of my mother’s Advance Medical Directive? I have it here.” When she stopped to take a deep breath, I jumped in. I pointed toward the sofas with an arm outstretched to indicate we were going to walk in that direction.

“The doctor has already admitted your mother. I will take a copy of whatever paperwork you have, and someone from the hospice team will be here shortly to go through the rest of the admission process,” I said as I sat down on one of the sofas. Joanne and her sister followed my lead.

As we talked, several people walked into the hospice and came over to where we were sitting. Joanne introduced them as two more sisters and the patient’s nine grandchildren. She explained they were a very close family and had traveled from all over the States to be together over the winter holiday break. I went back to my desk to photocopy Joanna’s papers while she led a family meeting in the living room area. She explained that her mother left very specific instructions about the kind of medical treatments she did and did not want. Everyone nodded along as though they already knew about Mrs. Gold’s directive. Some of the grandchildren asked questions. Others offered comfort to their emotional family members. In spite of their grief, they were kind to each other the way I wish all of our patients’ families could be, the way I hope my brothers and I will be when our turn comes to deal with our parents.

Because most patients come to our hospice in crisis–that is the purpose our in-patient unit serves–they and their family members are often unprepared for the reality of end-of-life care. Whatever family dynamic exists continues to play out in the hospice. My friend Daisy says ‘As we are in one thing, we are in all things.’ I would agree and also add that crisis brings out who we really are, not who we hope we are or who we pretend to be. Which brings me back to me and my family.

After my friend Leslie died–in hospice, in crisis–I sat down with my parents and asked them if they had any plans for end-of-life care. We had never discussed the topic as a family, and I wanted to make sure they received the kind of treatment they wanted. More importantly, I wanted to make sure that my three brothers and I were not left to fight about the kind of healthcare our parents would or should receive if they were not able to speak for themselves. I assured my parents, who raised four strong-willed, very different children, that we would be together but we needed them to do us and themselves a big favor by taking the burden of such enormous decisions out of our hands. They understood because they have witnessed our many disagreements over the years.

I now have the same paperwork for my parents that Joanne Gold had for her mother. The forms articulate my parents wishes and put me in charge of carrying out those wishes if my parents can not. My brothers and I might not be as close as the Gold children and grandchildren, but we will be united on our parents’ side when the time comes for us to say goodbye to them.

Previous post: The Loner Next post: When a Child is Terminally Ill

Bonus: For more on end of life care from a physician’s perspective, see How Doctors Die from our March/April 2013 issue.

Treasuring Memories

Treasuring Memories

More than the decorations on the annual Fraser fir tree or the wrapped gifts below it, Ann Balderston Glynn’s fondest Christmas memory is of her mother’s cream pies. She remembers how her mom would crush the graham crackers for the crust, pour hot butter to set it, and then stand over the stove stirring and stirring until the pudding consistency was just right.

“That pie represented home and love and family,” Ann says. As the years passed, she realized she wanted more than the handed-down recipe card from her mother. She wanted the stories that went along with it. So one December, 17 years ago, she returned to her childhood home in upstate New York, gathered her parents in the kitchen amid the ingredients for cream pie, and hit the record button on a video camera as her mother went to work. Ann’s mother spoke about learning the recipe from her mother on their farm in the 1930s while Ann’s father reminisced about a love of cooking that led to his career as a chef. (See also “Story Basics.”)

On that raw, unedited tape, Christmas pie became the centerpiece of a permanent family record.

Ann, 53, a married mother of two, is among a group especially eager to create—and celebrate—family history and turn it into a legacy, baby boomers. “That generation is at an age where they want to pass on family history to the next generation,” says John Paolo Canton of, the world’s largest online family history resource. “It gives them a sense of being, a sense of belonging. They’re finding out family stories no one knew. It’s like a treasure hunt.”

Family History

According to a Harris Interactive poll conducted last year, four in five Americans have an interest in learning about their family history. And if there’s an ideal time to bring a family tree to life, it’s during the holidays, the traditional and sometimes only occasions, when multiple generations gather. Reminiscing about the good old days comes naturally.

Peppering the family matriarch or patriarch with questions at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table is a magical moment. That’s when it hits you that your relatives are flesh-and-blood time capsules. “You don’t realize how many questions you have until you don’t have the opportunity to ask them anymore,” says Michelle Ercanbrack, a family historian with The holidays are a call to action, a time to “open the door for those beautiful conversations. If that opportunity is lost, think of the cultural heritage your children and grandchildren are being denied.”

Think about it: These conversations fill holes in understanding who you are. Scott Tims of Dallas, Texas, describes the impact of stories told by family members around the holiday table. “My grandmother graduated high school in 1933, one of the very worst years of the Great Depression,” he says. She would describe trains running through town loaded with good, honest men, shabbily dressed, looking for work.

Those stories of hard times resonated when Scott found himself dealing with his own challenges in our current recession. “There were times I really felt sorry for myself and then I thought back to the stories my grandmother and father told me about their growing up and what they had and what they didn’t. It puts things into perspective.”

Story Basics

Family History

The holiday get-together is the perfect place for beginning your family history project. Everything works better if you do a little planning. Here’s how to start preserving your family’s history.

Get Ready
Start with what you know: birth dates, marriages, deaths, etc. Write it all down.

Get set
Transfer your notes to a chart, and organize it as a family tree. You can use the free family tree at and make use of their repository of 10 billion statistical records from all over the world. Select census indexes; state-specific downloadable charts and forms are available at no charge.

Before the family gathering, draw up a list of open-ended questions with specific family members in mind. These can be as simple as: “Tell us about your wedding day,” or “Where did you serve in the war?” If you have them, gather family photos, letters, memorabilia, and heirlooms. These will help jumpstart memories. (One caveat. Some memories may be difficult for loved ones to share. Don’t push. Be respectful.)

Select a relaxed moment as dinner is winding down, and start by announcing that you would like to ask members of the family to share some of their fondest memories. Pass around photographs and other collected items to get the conversation started.

Tip: Prompt young children to be the interviewers. Their innocent questions and true wonder about the mysteries of that hard-to-imagine time before they were born can open up reticent elders to share stories they might never share with another adult. Encourage one of the younger family members to record stories using a video camera or smartphone. (Create an instant audio scrapbook using the free iPhone app Saving Memories Forever available at

Expand your search
The mission to document your family’s past can go well beyond family members you have always known. Use Facebook and other social networking sites to search for distant family members. On Facebook, you can create family-only groups or plan a reunion.

See “Tracing Family Roots” for more videos and stories related to genealogy.

The New American Super-Family

Cast of NBC's Parenthood (photo courtesy NBC).
Cast of NBC’s Parenthood (Photo courtesy NBC).

Amanda Gentle and millions like her are proving Thomas Wolfe wrong. You can go home again.

Like so many other Americans, Gentle was hit hard as the financial dominoes fell in 2008. The value of her house dropped while property taxes soared. When she was laid off from her job as director of marketing and sales for a small publishing company, she could no longer keep up. The bank eventually foreclosed on her Indianapolis home.

So, at 35 years old, Gentle did what numerous other 20- and 30-somethings are doing: She moved back in with her parents.

“It was difficult,” Gentle readily admits. “I had a successful career, and I went from being on my own, in a good place, to basically starting over.”

Gentle is not alone. Adult children of boomers— famously overeducated and underemployed—have created a moving-back-home tsunami. The driving force behind this trend is financial pressure, particularly rising housing costs, health insurance premiums, and college debt. About 8.7 million young adults ages 25 to 34 became part of multigenerational households in 2009, an increase of 13 million over 2007. Now, more than one in five young adults lives in multigenerational households.

But it’s not just the young who are coming home to roost. Many elderly parents of boomers are moving in with their children as well. All told, the number of multi-gen households grew about 30 percent during the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And a Pew Research Center report found that 51 million Americans lived in homes of two or more adult generations in 2009, compared with 42 million in 2000. That’s a 21 percent increase in less than a decade, but more importantly it reflects a turning back to what used to be, well, normal.

“We had a 50-year experiment of thinking of families as two parents and two kids,” says John Graham, co-author of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living. “What’s happening right now is that the 50-year nuclear family experiment is ending.”

A checklist from Nancy K. Schlossberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland.So you want to live under one roof? To successfully blend multiple generations into one household, here’s a checklist from Nancy K. Schlossberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and author of Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose.

Click image to enlarge checklist.


Not everyone is moving back home. Some never left. Dan, a 25-year-old healthcare consultant, lives with his parents on the northeast side of Philadelphia. While going to college, he stayed at home, and after graduating, Dan gave independence some thought, then decided to stick around. The primary reason is the money he’ll be saving. “When I move out, I’d like to be able to make a down payment on a decent place, not some hole in the wall,” Dan says. “The best way to save money is to spend wisely and right now, that means living at home.”

Dan, who requested that we not use his last name, considers the decision to stay put a no-brainer. Apartments in his neighborhood cost upward of $1,100 a month, and with a $15-an-hour job, his budget would have been stretched to the absolute limit. “I didn’t want to move out on a whim,” he says.

Whatever the circumstances, being an adult in your parents’ home is different from being a teen there. Before Gentle moved in with her parents this past January, the family sat down in the living room and discussed expectations, including chores, financial responsibilities, and how long she would stay. This phase of basically resetting her GPS could have turned into an ugly high school flashback. Instead, having new structure in her life was soothing. “After all the stress of being laid off and losing my house, it was very comforting to be with my family,” Gentle says. “I’m used to being very self-sufficient and independent, but it was nice to take a deep breath for a moment and get back on my feet.”

Gentle has found a job and plans to move out again soon, but author Graham sees multi-gen living as the wave of the future. “The boomerang kids’ experience is spring training for the long season of baby boomer retirement,” he says. “They’re learning how to live together. That’s vital, because in the next 10 years, boomers will start moving in with their children.”

He’s undoubtedly correct, but the trend of elderly parents rejoining their children has already begun. When Hurricane Irene raked the Eastern Seaboard this past summer, 79-year-old Lois Bechtel grew uneasy as the winds increased and the rain pounded her Stamford, Connecticut, home. Instead of weathering the storm alone, the retired executive secretary describes how she dashed a few steps into the adjoining house to be with her daughter’s family, safe and secure. “If I lived on my own, I’d be by myself in storms or other emergencies,” Bechtel says. “Now I know that if I get sick, they’re close by. It’s a comfort.”

Bechtel lives in an attached, “in-law” apartment that allows her privacy when she wishes. According to a 2010 Coldwell Banker trend survey, home builders are on the multi-gen bandwagon, increasingly incorporating in-law apartments and adding other features for extended family members, such as separate entries, multiple kitchens, and second master bedrooms.

New Hope for an Alzheimer’s Cure

An interview with Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer’s Association.

In the spring of 2011, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association announced a new pre-clinical stage of Alzheimer’s Disease, marking the first change in the definition of the illness in 27 years. The announcement grows out of evidence that plaques and tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s Disease begin to form in the brain years before the patient shows any symptoms. The new definition raises the tantalizing possibility of developing treatments that could delay or halt the progression of the illness before the brain is compromised. spoke with Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, about the impact of this new definition both today and in the future.

Q: If there are no symptoms, why is it important to identify this very early phase of Alzheimer’s?

A: There is the feeling in the field that by the time someone has become demented, it’s too late to treat them. What we’re beginning to see is the evolution of a picture that is a lot like that of other diseases with a long onset. For example, at one time, people defined heart attack as the event that happened when the coronary artery was blocked. But the real success in treatment came when it was realized that the pathology for heart attack appeared many years before a heart attack occurred. We now know that if you treat the sclerosis that underlies the problem, you can prevent a heart attack from ever occurring.

Q: Can you get tested for pre-clinical Alzheimer’s at this point?

A: No, you can’t go to your local doc and say, I’d like to get this particular cerebro-spinal fluid test; it’s just not commercially available. That said, it may be possible that amyloid imaging, which is a way of using a PET scanner to take a picture of the amount of beta amyloid in an individual’s brain, will become publicly available in a relatively short period of time. A few months maybe. However, for consumers, there’s no point in doing the testing unless there are good treatment options.

Q: What are some of the most promising avenues of research into future treatments?

A: Many of the therapies being tested have the potential to limit the accumulation of beta amyloid. This is a polypeptide chain that exists naturally in the brain, but develops two extra amino acids as some people age. This substance starts to accumulate in the brain. We know from experiments that beta amyloid is toxic to brain cells. Many feel that if you could limit that accumulation of toxin, you could limit the course of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Q: How would a potential drug work?

A: You can either get the brain to make less amyloid or get rid of more. It’s not exactly rocket science. Two drugs are currently being tested at phase III level—these are the big trials necessary to get permission from the FDA to sell the drug. Being in phase III doesn’t mean that the drug is effective. Still, we can at least imagine a time when they might be available in your medicine cabinet. So that’s one promising area.

Q: Any others?

A: Some data says that if you drink more red wine you tend to have less Alzheimer’s Disease disease, so that track of epidemiological information has led us to resveratrol, an antioxidant found in grape skins. There’s also a blood product called IVIG (intravenous immunoglobin), which is being tested at phase III level. All of those are promising.

Q: But all this is far off. Without a cure, what’s the benefit of knowing you have this devastating illness in your future?

A: The Alzheimer’s Association has encouraged early diagnosis for years, not so much for the medical care you can receive, but rather for your ability to learn about the disease and prepare for the future. If you have a goal to travel around the world, for example, and if we have an effective biomarker that could let you know years in advance, you might want to take that trip a bit sooner while you’re still able. You’d certainly want to create powers of attorney so that your healthcare and estate planning would be handled as you wish.

Q: What about the impact for family members and potential caregivers?

A: It’s a chance for education. One of the things people don’t recognize is that people in early stage dementia get victimized by society. For example, they don’t remember they just bought a new car, so they go out and buy another one. Family members can help protect them from harm. Another benefit is understanding that Alzheimer’s changes peoples’ personality. This can be devastating to family members who mistakenly believe that mom or dad, in expressing hostility or anger, is revealing true opinions they’d been hiding for years. So the value of an early diagnosis will be able to stand on its own even with the limits of what we know today. And certainly knowing that better medications are coming, it takes on an even greater purpose.

–Steven Slon

Steven Slon is the Editorial Director for The Saturday Evening Post. He writes a regular column about aging and caregiving for, in which this article first appeared.



Addressing War in Wartime: Post Editorials from the 1940s

It is relatively easy to write memorials to America’s fallen in peaceful days.

But in war time, when your family, your relatives, or your friends are risking death every day in distant lands, you can’t rely on platitudes. In these two editorials, the Post writers tried to keep the big picture in focus, while acknowledge the intense worry and suffering of family members.

The Price of Freedom is High

from September 23, 1944

Those who have lost sons or husbands in this war inevitably resent statements that the casualties are “only” a fraction of what some extravagantly pessimistic people predicted they would be. In the homes which have been darkened by the death of a soldier, or which have welcomed back the shattered remnants of vigorous youth, the burden of war’s tragedy is little lightened by assurance that it might have been worse.

Already there is a heavy toll of sacrifice. On almost any street you pick can be found a home already visited by bereavement. There will be many more before the final accounting. Nevertheless, there are grounds for hope that the awful price will not be as great as many believed. The June invasion of France cost the United States 69,526 casualties, including 11,026 killed, as against the” half million casualties” freely predicted in certain quarter at home. The soldier in England who said to a visitor, “I don’t mind going over there, but I don’t want to be counted out in advance,” is at least vindicated by the result.

There is no cause for overconfidence. Undoubtedly there will be other Tarawas and Saipans in the Pacific. But the overall results so far makes it plain that the business of landing in enemy countries, preparatory to rolling ahead in a 1944 adaptation of the 1940 blitzkrieg, was accomplished with less loss of human life than even the most hopeful prophets believed was possible. For that fact, which in no way lightens the sorrows of the victims of war’s grim lottery, we can all be grateful.

For Many There Will be No Rejoicing

from March 3, 1945

The other day we received a letter which began this way:

“For many months I have eagerly read your articles about returning veterans and your stories about the resumption of life when our loved ones return from battle. Now my eyes search for other words — words of comfort, consolation and advice about how to carry on, knowing that that beloved husband will never return. Haven’t you a special word for us thousands of wives and mothers whose men have made the supreme sacrifice? Won’t you please make an urgent plea for a prayerful reception of the armistice that is to come? Wild and hilarious rejoicing will deeply hurt us, for we have had to pay such a great price for the victory.”

It would be easy enough to write a logical and philosophical reply to that letter, pointing out that grief is, after all, the common lot of man; that millions of others all over the world must shroud their relief at victory in mourning which will follow them to the grave; and that it is for the living to wear their sorrows proudly. But such a reply wouldn’t say much to the writer of the letter quoted above or to anybody who experiences the loneliness of bereavement. Not even the knowledge that the gallant husband who gave his life would want the news of peace received with joy can allay the bitter suspicion that one is surrounded by thoughtless and callous people who pluck the fruits of other men’s sacrifices, indifferent to the price which they paid.

We cannot answer this tragic letter, nor make the dread of the hilarity of heedless people easier for the writer to endure. But it is just possible that publication of this excerpt will point up the fact that a soldier’s name on a casualty list is not just a name, but represents a hurt which will never entirely heal; that the relatives of the men who have died in this war are a special charge on the kindness and decency of all of us; that now is particularly a time when “Teach me to feel another’s woe” should be the heartfelt prayer of everyone.