A son's story sheds light on Alzheimer's impact

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Dan Kosmowski and his father Bernie talk about a picture of the two of them when Dan was 6 or 7.   Bernie Kosmowski, a Vietnam War veteran, suffers from frontal temporal dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pontiac — Dan Kosmowski’s dad often picked him up from elementary school on his motorcycle.

“I would sit right on the fuel tank and grip the handlebars with my little fists and my dad would sit behind me,” Kosmowski said Tuesday in his dad’s downtown Pontiac loft. “All the other kids thought I had the cool dad.”

Kosmowski, 38, lovingly glances at his dad, seated next to him, and smiles. His dad looks straight ahead. He's expressionless, listening to his son recount memories, without comment.

Dan Kosmowski holds a 1967 photo of his father, Bernie, while in the military in the Vietnam War, receiving a Purple Heart after getting injured while in the artillery.

Bernard Kosmowski, 71, a Vietnam War veteran and retired electrician who worked for Detroit Diesel Corporation for 31 years, was diagnosed at 62 with frontal temporal dementia in 2009.

Dan Kosmowski, whose parents are divorced, practices law from his home. Since he is an only child and the primary caregiver for his father, he is sharing their story in advance of Saturday's Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

It takes place in 600 communities nationwide, including the Detroit Zoo. The Kosmowskis will be there.

Dan Kosmowski and his father Bernie Kosmowski live in lofts in the same building in Pontiac.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you first get a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or other dementias, and be open to listening to advice,” said the son. “The Alzheimer’s help line was my first call, because I needed to know where to begin. I just wish I had done it earlier.”

Kristin Rossi, spokeswoman for the Alzheimer’s Association-Greater Michigan chapter in Southfield, says the event “raises critical funds for Alzheimer's care, support and research and also is the nation's largest Alzheimer's awareness event.”

“The more people who come out and show their support, the stronger we become in our resolve to end this disease, she said. “Often this disease can be burdensome, but the Walk to End Alzheimer's is a way for everyone to come together in solidarity, but also to have fun and celebrate and remember their loved ones.”

Over 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and as many as 16 million will have the disease in 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Association. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. The cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is estimated to total $277 billion in 2018, increasing to $1.1 trillion by mid-century, according to the association.

This 1967 photo shows Bernie Kosmowski when he was in the artillery during the Vietnam War.

The road to the father and son living in the same loft apartment building was filled with twists and turns.

“My dad lived in seven different assisted living facilities before coming to live here,” Dan Kosmowski said. “In the first one, he learned the code to the locked door and ended up hitchhiking in Auburn Hills at 4 o'clock in the morning.”

He said the police found him and took him back to the nearest assisted living facility.

“They called me and told me what happened, but paying $4,000 a month, you expect safeguards to be in place,” said Kosmowski.

Father and son now live only a few doors apart in the building. The son keeps watch over his dad with help from a webcam.

“My dad does not want to feel that someone is hovering over him,” said Kosmowski. “So he still can have a sense of independence while I keep an eye on him without hovering.”

Bernard Kosmowski slowly grabs his beverage and moves from the desk next to his son to a comfortable chair near his bed, which is covered in a white bedspread with his first name imprinted in the center in blue. He props his feet up on the bed and when his son asks about his motorcycles, his face lights up.

His dad Bernie would give Dan Kosmowski  rides on his motorcycle when he was 6 or 7.

“Yes, I rode one  to Colorado,” he said. “We had to get rid of one of them because of a gas leak.”

The elder Kosmowski does not initiate conversations that morning, but will answer questions.

A painting with a blue background sits propped against a wall. “Did you paint this?” he’s asked.

“Yes, it is a tree hit by lightning,” he responds.

“Do you like to paint?” he’s asked.

“No,” he responds.

The son said there is no pill his dad can take to abate this particular form of dementia.

“There is nothing to treat it with, other than trying to keep him active and energized,” he said.

The son has some help from caregivers during the week so his dad can be taken out to lunch, to go play with the caregiver’s dog or go to a park. He also received help from a nutritionist to point out which restaurants nearby would be better to visit.

The son tries to recreate one of his fondest memories with his father, which was riding his motorcycle with him.

“Dad can’t ride a motorcycle by himself now, so I bought a tandem tricycle so we could ride together since we both love being out in nature,” said Kosmowski.

Bernie Kosmowski relaxes in his Pontiac loft. The Vietnam War veteran has frontal temporal dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the tricycle is so huge, Kosmowski said he had to lease a minvan just to cart it around.

“I don’t mind because it gives him that spark,” said Kosmowski. “It brings back his smile.”

More about the father and son’s journey can be found at Berniesjourneys.com.

The Walk to End Alzheimer’s registration at the Detroit Zoo begins at 7 am August 25th. The ceremony begins at 8:30 a.m and the walk begins at 8:50 a.m. The route length is 1.8 miles. Wheelchairs will be available.


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