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‘227’ creator brings humor to book about battling Alzheimer’s

Christine Houst| Sun-Times file photo

Christine Houston | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: December 13, 2013 6:30AM

I’m sure there were days when Christine Houston, a Chicago native and the creator of the hilarious ’80s sitcom “227,” thought she would never laugh again.

Her late husband, Ike Houston, started showing signs of dementia in 1999, but Houston — who was 23 years younger than her husband — chalked up his odd behavior to the aging process.

It wasn’t until his illness progressed to the late stages that Houston realized that she was dealing with a lot more than that.

Now Houston has written “Laughing through the Tears,” a book based on the couple’s battle against the disease.

“If I had any knowledge in the beginning and I could have recognized the onset, I could have gotten a little more help,” she told me in an interview.

“I could have gotten into a group that would have helped me go through it. I wouldn’t have had to go through the pain and anguish and denial.”

In many instances, families dealing with loved ones exhibiting signs of memory loss, aggression and disorientation are like the fictional characters, Crystal and Eric, that Houston used to tell her story.

For instance, Houston writes about a troubling incident during the couple’s trip to Las Vegas when “Eric” went missing:

“As Crystal exited the elevator and turned the corner, she saw a group of people at the front desk. There, in the middle of the group was Eric. He was barefoot with a towel wrapped around him. Eric smiled when he saw Crystal . . .

“She wanted to hurry and get Eric up to their room so she could question him in private. She prayed there would be a logical explanation for his embarrassing if not outrageous behavior.”

Dr. Shellie Williams, assistant professor of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said Houston’s denial is not unusual.

“Sometimes the perspective in the African-American community is those little changes are just ordinary changes in aging. And sometimes the perception is that if you are labeled with a condition like dementia, that is a negative connotation,” she explained.

“In actuality, getting the diagnosis and getting the diagnosis early allows you to have more say in your care — whether or not you stay at home or go to assisted living.”

Melanie Adams, director of education and outreach for the Greater Illinois Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, noted that there are resources available to help families cope with the disease.

“The 24-hour help line is probably the most important. We don’t know what we don’t know, and the unknown is sometimes more fearful than the facts,” she said.

“The Alzheimer’s Association is there to help anyone with memory loss in complete confidentiality. We can help people learn what they are facing, and maybe not facing, and put them in touch with others in similar circumstances,” Adams said.

Houston had no idea what she was facing when she started noticing changes in her husband’s behavior. “I was oblivious to the early signs,” she said.

It is important to go to a doctor to get a diagnosis because not all changes are because of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

“People can have changes because they are depressed or they have had a stroke. Some people may have mental changes because of a thyroid condition or because B12 levels are low,” Williams said. “A lot of different things can mimic dementia.”

The African-American population is two times more likely to have dementia than Caucasians, according to recent research.

Some of the risk factors for dementia include diabetes and hypertension, two diseases that disproportionately affect the African-American community.

“I really want people of color to read this book because they don’t get the information that other people get,” Houston told me.

I could hardly put the book down.

Houston, who is a gifted storyteller, took a depressing subject and turned it into an uplifting story about love and commitment.

“It was therapeutic for me. It was a real serious journey and I just wanted people to know it was not all gloom and doom,” Houston said. “Whoever came up with the adage, ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ was right. Sometimes it really is.”

Contact the Alzheimer’s Association help line at (800) 272-3900. To contact the author, email


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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