Father-son bond builds in battle with Alzheimer’s

Updated June 13, 2013

Albert “Pops” Zangaro, 71, doesn’t know that Sunday is Father’s Day.

He’s not sure where his children are, or who they are.

But he knows whom to trust. He can trust the young man with the pierced brow, the bleached hair and the rose tattoos, the man who helps him shave and shower in the morning and tucks him in at night.

“He knows I’m someone who cares for him,” said Vince Zangaro, 37, a rock ‘n’ roll musician, full-time caregiver and devoted son. “Sometimes he thinks I’m his father.”

The role reversal would be familiar to anyone who has looked after an aging relative with Alzheimer’s, a progressive, debilitating neurological disease that affects some 5.8 million Americans.

Like a loving father, Vince holds hands with his dad when they go walking. He has “child-proofed” their house with barricades and door alarms so that Pops won’t wander off. He handles the pills, the insurance, the doctor appointments, and, with the superior cooking skills of his fiancee, Amy King, the meals.

It’s an unusual role for a guitar shredder. And Vince will tell you that he wasn’t tailor-made for the job. But caring for his father has given him new inspiration as a songwriter and a new sense of mission.

Now he wants to help other caregivers, and is sponsoring an all-day musical event, the Alzheimer’s Music Fest, on July 28, at the 120 Tavern and Music Hall in Marietta. The festival will feature 23 musical acts and a silent auction, and proceeds will provide “respite care,” paying for in-home health care workers so that family members of an Alzheimer’s patient can have a few hours of freedom.

“His dad is the No. 1 priority in his life,” said social media consultant Kelleye Troup, who has helped Zangaro market his music. “Everything else is secondary to him. His world is his dad.”

Albert Anthony Zangaro was a mechanical genius — a “MacGyver,” his son calls him — who could fix an F-111 with duct tape and baling wire. He served in the Air Force for four years and continued in the Navy Reserve until he retired at age 63. He also directed maintenance and HVAC services at large office buildings in downtown Atlanta. His wife, Rose Marie Zangaro, handled many of the details of everyday life, including caring for Vince and his sister, Donna. Ill with rheumatoid arthritis, Rose Marie worried about her husband, should she die.

“You’re going to have to watch over your father,” she told Vince. Somehow, said Vince, she had a premonition.

When his mother died of a heart attack in 2001 at age 55, Vince moved in with his father to make sure the elder Zangaro had his bearings. In those days, his father was self-sufficient. Vince had put aside his first love, songwriting, and was on the road five days a week, staffing Hot Topics stores in malls around the country. (The 600-store chain sells accessories and T-shirts featuring pop-culture icons, from Doctor Who to SpongeBob.)

But there were signs of trouble. Pops got lost driving to a job he’d had for eight years. At age 63, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Vince had to grow up fast.

“I was a selfish little jackass back then,” said Vince, “but my mom knew there was a better person inside of me.”

Quitting his job at Hot Topics, the younger Zangaro began taking care of his father full time, while writing songs again and playing a few selected gigs. His father’s abilities dwindled to zero, and his conversation shrank to a few phrases: “That’s it!” “You bet.” “Yabba dabba doo.” But the spirits of both father and son stayed buoyant.

“I’m a positive realist, I always get the hell up, and keep fighting,” said Vince. He began writing a cycle of songs that reflect his father’s struggles, and released them last month as “The Pops EP.” (To hear Zangaro and his band performing “Broken Sort of Life,” from “The Pops EP,” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzjuDHL5Wbg.)

He also changed his selfish ways.

Pops goes with Vince and King to the studio, to gigs, to the grocery store and to restaurants. Jason Salzman, at Blue Blanket Sound Recording Studio in Marietta, worried that having Pops in the recording booth might be a distraction for Vince, but it worked out well. “It’s great to be around him, and (Pops) enjoys the time there,” said Salzman. “It’s laid-back.”

Recently Vince and Pops Zangaro and King listened to a mix of one of Vince’s new songs, “Walking,” at Salzman’s studio. The elder Zangaro was dressed in the semi-hipster clothes that his son buys for him, including a pair of plaid Vans slip-ons.

Pops, who almost never speaks, was responding to the music with smiles and hands and elbows, a sympathetic time-keeping, his version of dancing.

“Well, what do you think?” his son asked him.

“That’s it!” said Pops.