The Beauty in Alzheimer’s

Written September 12, 2011

I know. At first glance the title of this post is a bit oxymoronic. After all, every single one of us has been touched in some way by the sadness and confusion of this disease. My family is no exception. My mother-in-law was diagnosed in 2009 and as she and I sat in the neuropsychologist’s office and heard the news, my heart simultaneously dropped out of my chest and rose into my throat for the knowing of what may lie ahead. We drove home afterward in near silence. It turns out there aren’t too many words to say in those first stunned moments of realization, but then her quiet, determined voice said, “You know, I don’t know what this will all mean for me, but I’m just going to keep living each day the best I can.” And so it began…

Sure, the usual heart-wrenching progressions have been evident over these past two years, but each loss seems to bring an opening to something new, something beautiful for Mom, for Dad, for the rest of us to witness.

Familiar tasks of housework and cooking are now too complicated. Even family recipes made a gazillion times are now lost. Sad, but here’s the resulting truth. Without the urgency to move to the next task of planning and organizing and keeping things flowing, she is able to slow down and observe life. The people around her, the clouds in the sky, the hummingbirds and finch on her back patio. She observes all of that, fully, until she’s had her fill. And when you’re with her, you feel like you have the time to do the same and by golly, you do! The tasks are still there when you’re through. They still get done, but honestly, some of them don’t even really need to be done at all. You’ve heard this before. Maybe you’ve even practiced it off and on, but I’m telling you, it is truly something to behold when fully practiced.

Her lifelong passions of sewing and quilting are now too detailed, but she has gained a burst of awareness of color. I think it’s kind of like that common theory of when you lose one of your five senses, others become more attuned. Since she cannot always make sense of what she’s seeing or hearing, her brain offers it to her in images and form and color. For example, she sees patterns in nature. The backdrop of the Catalinas behind their home offers me a view of the mountains, but to her they offer a shifting play of shadows as the sun moves through the day. The pills laid out for her twice each day on the counter is a functional task for Dad, but she marvels at the beautiful patterns he creates with them. She carefully touches each one, observing how it lies in comparison to the others, telling me that she thinks it’s so sweet that he takes the time to create such a pretty gift for her each time. Can you imagine seeing the world in this way? All the time? Every day?

And let me share with you what a life without worry is like. Mom used to worry. At one point or another through the years each of us in the family has offered her ample reason to fret. Add to that the bad news and judgment and disruption in the world and we all can feel the worry start to rise in us, right? Well, it turns out that the outcome of not being able to fully see cause and effect eliminates a whole slew of worrying about what might happen. And when your focus is no longer spinning outward, it turns inward, into your heart, and at least in Mom’s case, heartfelt love is what washes into those empty voids of worry. Smiles and hugs replace wringing hands. Words of full-out appreciation and encouragement replace warnings of what might happen. And joy. There’s much more joy to be had and shared as evidenced by Dad’s report of her newfound sense of humor that has them giggling together throughout the day.

In their 50+ year relationship, Mom has tended to take a leadership role in decision making. Until now. Now she is unable to problem solve their way through the big and little day-to-day choices and so Dad finds himself in the new position of guide. A difficult shift for him after so much time spent relying on her wise counsel. The gift that is ours to witness though is the unconditional trust that Mom offers Dad in his new role. No doubt, no questioning, no second guessing. No resentment if the outcome isn’t what was expected. Just utter and complete trust. I’d say it was childlike, but that’s not fair because it doesn’t feel like it comes from innocence as much as from an inner knowing that this person to whom you’ve turned over your life has only your best interests at heart and wouldn’t under any circumstances harm you. Whatever results from that foundational belief doesn’t matter. That’s the kind of trust I’m talking about.

You know, I live my life mindfully. I work on getting bigger every day and I’m a really positive person. I see silver linings in just about everything. This article is evidence of that. Two years ago I would have thought I already practiced these life truths of slowing down, seeing the beauty around me, living joyfully, trusting what I was guided to do, but here’s the deal…I’m just beginning to embody them and too often real life gets in the way and I forget. Knowing Mom has always been a gift to me, but now, I feel that this privilege of witnessing her inner self revealed, of seeing this beauty in the midst of intense sadness, has been, and will continue to be, one of my most powerful life lessons.

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Regina Leffers McCaleb, Ph.D.

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