4 Enduring Ways to Be There for Loved Ones with Alzheimer’s

4 Enduring Ways to Be There for Loved Ones with Alzheimer's

I knew my mother was dying when she lost the capacity for speech altogether. She sometimes smiled, though I suspected it was more reflexive than responsive. Yet there was one amazing, miraculous thing. When I prayed with her, her lips would move with mine. Her lips would move when they brought her to say the rosary with the other residents. When she heard a hymn, her lips would move.

I am convinced that my mother never lost touch with the Lord, that the hard core of her faith did not yield to the disease even as everything else that made her who she was disappeared. She was a child of God who could not be wrested from Him.

My own faith was not always so strong. My prayers fought against fear and doubt, and my trust in God sometimes faltered. I wondered if I had been a good and faithful son, worthy of my mother’s and God’s love. I wondered how a woman of faith could be visited by such misery. Yet it was not for me to know, and only by faith could I understand that.

On my last visit with my mother, I told her how much I loved her, had always loved her, and that even during those times when I drifted from God and church and all the things she so deeply believed in, I knew she still prayed for me and loved me. Maybe it was selfish to unburden myself to a woman who could no longer find words. But as I leaned close, she whispered one: “Love.”

It was the last word she ever spoke.

Alzheimer’s may take away everything that we are, but I believe it cannot destroy faith and love, which are facets of the soul and exist beyond its reach.

Lately, I’ve noticed a few misfires in my own memory. Just the vagaries of an aging brain? Is it normal to forget to put the carafe under the coffee maker (my mother did that, too)? To return a jar of curry powder to the dishwasher instead of the spice cabinet? Did I remember to give my dog her daily thyroid pill? I’ve started to write reminders to myself, which I’ve never had to do before.

If these things are indications of early dementia, do I want to know? Wanting to know is what makes us human—wanting to know ourselves, wanting to know love, wanting to know the future, wanting to know and worship God. The only thing I am allowed to know with certainty about the future is that God will be present there, as he is present now and has always been present in my past.

Not everyone wants to know how they are going to die. Given my family history of Alzheimer’s, I do because knowing is better than not knowing, at least when it comes to dementia. I can plan for long-term care and put my finances in order. I started seeing a neurologist and have undergone neuropsychological testing and brain imaging. It is known that early indications of Alzheimer’s can be detected years before a clinical diagnosis is made.

I’ve been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—a somewhat maddeningly vague diagnosis that can mean nothing more than a benign decline of functioning not necessarily unexpected in a 69-year-old-man—and cerebral small vessel disease, meaning I may have experienced minor strokes at some point that could explain my memory lapses. Again, not necessarily an unusual finding in a man my age, and I’m told the brain can work around that damage. Still, my neurologist’s clinical notes state that “a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s cannot be excluded at this time.”

There is no cure once the disease begins, but there is much I can do to forfend its onset—diet, exercise, proper sleep. And faith. Faith, as I saw in my mother, is indestructible. It is my greatest protection, the immutable presence of a loving God. The prayer that has seen me through many spiritual trials in life is called the Serenity Prayer. “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Nothing could make the future clearer.

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