I recently spoke at an Alzheimer’s fundraising gala in Abilene Texas. Sufferers of Alzheimer’s dementia experience the mind’s decline until even the familiar is unrecognizable.
To families who watch their loved ones decline into unrecognizable shadows of the people they once were, it can be so painful they can no longer visit them.
In spite of scientific advances, we still don’t know what causes it, how to prevent it, or how to treat it, other than palliatively. As we live longer, the incidence of this disease will triple by mid-century. In developed countries, it is one of the costliest diseases to society. In the US it costs $100 billion annually.
I told the audience, even if we can’t cure Alzheimer’s, we can heal our relationship to it. To heal ourselves and those we love and care for, we must look at the landscape of incurable senility, and see it with new eyes.
As families and caregivers, we can see beyond what now defines our loved ones and appreciate an occasional smile or hint of recognition — any reminder of their impact on our lives when they were whole. This is how we can let go of only the sadness and heal ourselves.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the US Supreme Court in 2005, a decision based on the need to care for her beloved husband John.
John J. O’Connor III, a distinguished attorney, was married to Sandra Day for 57 years, and died several weeks ago. For the last 19 years, he suffered from Alzheimer’s and, for the last few, no longer recognized Sandra.
A couple of years ago, John became romantically involved with a fellow Alzheimer’s patient at his residential care center. Sandra Day O’Connor was not upset; she said she was grateful that the relationship had a significant improvement on John’s frame of mind. Sandra said this made him happy and she loved to see him that way.
If you can see the landscape with new eyes, you can let go of the loss and see the legacy of love. What we carry with us at the end of our lives is far less important than what we leave behind.