By Jennifer Raulerson
The process of Alzheimer’s Disease in the brain can seem like a car crash in slow motion. It affects the brain, one section at a time, causing an increasing amount of strain on both the person affected and their loved ones. The grieving process for the family of one living with Alzheimer’s Disease starts while the person is still alive, as loved ones feel themselves slowly losing touch with the person they have grown to know and love, and then a different person seems to take their place. But during this transition, we can create and experience moments of joy and delight as we learn to simply live their truth.
What does it mean to “live their truth”?
When someone is affected by Alzheimer ’s disease or other forms of dementia, their brain ceases to understand things in the same way they were able to beforehand. The part of their brain that forms short-term memories, allowing them to live in the here and now, becomes damaged. Fortunately, throughout most of the progression they still have their long-term memories intact. That is where we can connect with them. In a sense, they go back and “live” in the past. Have you ever wished you could time travel? Well, now’s your chance! Hitch a ride on this train and enjoy a trip down memory lane with your most treasured Alzheimer’s family member or friend. You will never see the light sparkle in their eyes like when they are telling you about a story from way back when! Join in the discussion, ask questions! Be a part of their reality in that moment. It is actually mesmerizing to enter into a piece of that world and experience the excitement that they feel while living it.
Sometimes it is fear that they feel, though. “Sally” is worried that she will lose her job if she doesn’t get to work, RIGHT NOW. You can help by telling her that she doesn’t have to work today. This is a true statement and yet you don’t have to tell her that she doesn’t work in the restaurant as a waitress anymore. This might make her think she got fired and worry her even more. Simply letting her think she is off today will suffice and allow her to relax.
What about fear of not having what they need? Men have walked around since they were sixteen years old with a wallet in their back pocket. That wallet carried everything they needed in order to take care of their family. Their driver license, money and whole identity was in that wallet. Women feel the same way about their purses, carrying their whole lives around in there. If her child needed a tissue for their nose or some money at the dime store, she was prepared. Now, people tend to take those things away from them because they have dementia, for fear that they’ll lose something. Give Dad the wallet and a few dollars to keep in his pocket, maybe some old keys. Give Mom a purse with some necessities to carry with her. These things feel like security to someone who has gotten used to being able to take care of everyone else all of the time. Let them still feel like they can. Being able to be useful creates moments of joy, too.
“Alton” may be looking for his wife, and yet you know she passed away 15 years ago. Why would you tell him the story again that she is no longer living, when for him, it would be like reliving the moment of her passing all over again? You can allow him to feel joy instead by simply saying, “That Olivia, you have always said that her smile lights up a room! Tell me again about the first day you saw her. Didn’t you say she was drinking a soda at the counter down at the Rexall?” Take him to a place where he can find her again, and light up from the inside. And you’ll find beautiful memories of her, too, with him.
This is what families of Alzheimer’s patients watch happening…but even throughout all of this, there can still be joy.
Alzheimer’s is a huge challenge for anyone who faces it but the Bible says “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” [1 John 4:4] and, also, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” [2 Timothy 1:7]. Oh, they have sound minds, despite what it may look like to others. Their thoughts are just arranged differently. But as long as there is still happiness somewhere inside, and God will still be found on the other side, I believe that what is there is still sound. And, if you know, as I do, that the victory has already been won, then we must spend the days in between finding joy in the process. And there are moments of joy if you are looking for them.