The first time I came in contact with what I would learn was Alzheimer’s Disease was in 1986 in Andover, NJ. I was serving the United Methodist Church there, and I got a call late at night about a murder that was connected to a family in my congregation. That story will have to wait for another day – today I want to consider what happened to Walter, the patriarch of the family and a pillar of our church. Walter was a sharp man, in his mid-80’s, who had never shown any sign of dementia before that night. Then his granddaughter shot and killed her brother after years of being sexually abused by him. It turned out to be a not-so-secret family secret.
Walt and his second wife, Doris, were, of course, devastated by this event, and for a time, Walt was silent in his grief. After about 2 weeks, he began to come out of it, but his behavior changed dramatically. He would lose himself in the conversation, seeming to be transported back and forth through time. Anyone who was with him would continue to be part of his conversation; he was completely aware of each one of us, and would include us as if nothing was happening. But something was happening. Walt was slipping away from us.
In the span of an hour, I would go from being his pastor to being Joe who served in the war with him. Then I would be his cousin Jim, who had stolen Walt’s first love (Walt never forgave him for that!). Then I would be his boss from the 1960’s (Walt didn’t like him much) – then I would be the wife of the pastor who served that church in the 1940’s. Walt’s mind was time traveling, and each person with him would be along for the ride. It was an amazing and sad thing to watch, but, luckily, Walt didn’t seem to mind. It was the rest of us who had to keep up appearances and go along with him, sometimes at the cost of his getting angry with us (remember Jim and his boss? I was at the receiving end of that anger. He seemed to have had a crush on the pastor’s wife, so it wasn’t all bad).
I learned that, when dealing with dementia, I had to go along to get along. At first, I didn’t understand; I would correct Walt and tell him who I was, and he would stare at me like I had lost my mind. I realized pretty quickly that trying to make him come back to 1986 before he was ready was actually emotionally damaging to him. He was happy as could be, and anyone with him needed to accept him for where he was and who he had made us to be. Dementia is one of the cruelest things; sometimes for the person suffering from it, and always for those around them.
It was announced yesterday that the FDA has approved a medication that might help with some forms of dementia, and I hope it is true. In too many ways, this illness robs us of who we are, and there is little we can do about it, despite the massive economy that has risen from it with vitamins and expensive treatments that rarely seem to help. Until a cure or a deterrent is found, we will have to live through it the best we can. We need to go along and cry when we leave, but we should always remember that the person with dementia is still who they are. It’s just harder to see them.
Prayer – God, we don’t know why people suffer from illness, and we don’t blame You, but it is hard to deal with. Be patient with us when we are impatient with You. Amen.
Today’s art is from Pinterest – it is in the Saatchi Gallery in London, but I couldn’t find out who the artist is.