Alzheimer's and My Friends
The Personal Side of Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's Disease affects 5.4 million Americans today and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There is no cure for Alzheimer's Disease which is particularly troubling for the 15 million unpaid family caregivers supporting a family member suffering from this devastating disease.
My career path has taken me down a road which intersects with Alzheimer's Disease and I have been fortunate to become friends with many who have been afflicted with this disease. I have shared many conversations, found common experiences and walked with my friends through their frustrations.
My perceptions have changed as I have come to meet and know my friends because I truly know now how resilient the mind is and have been shown that it is possible to walk through Alzheimer's Disease with grace.
The biggest fear I have, when I think about my own reaction to Alzheimer's, is the fear of loosing contact, connections and communication. Socialization is important to each of us in many different ways and how we socialize is effected by the progress of Alzheimer's disease.
My experiences reinforce my fears to some degree. Communicating with my friends with Alzheimer's is often very difficult, repetitious and extremely time consuming, but often rewarding to me beyond measure. People are important to me, relationships with people are important to me and understanding and honoring people is important to me, especially those who are elders.
Not everyone is a notable personality, but everyone has a story and contributes to society by their participation. It is vital for most people to share their story and although it may be simple, it is honorable and important because our stories create our identity. Consider this when you are having a conversation with someone in the next few days, particularly if this person is not someone you have an ongoing relationship with. What types of information do you exchange during your conversation? You tell your story, who you are, what you do and what you have in common with the person you are talking with. For example, I attended a training this week involving folks within my profession. I had not met any of these people previously, but shared some common experiences with most everyone.
Beginning with the typical introductions associated with these types of group activities each participant began with an introduction shared their story. Throughout the week as we became familiar with one another our stories expanded, became more intimate and detailed. The story may have been personal, work related or an observed occurance that affected us in some meaningful way helping us to find common ground.. As the week progressed we began to build relationships with each other building connections to help us understand and support each other, now and into the future. Who we are is important!
I often have an opportunity to share time with my friends who live in our retirement community. Like most people they have a story and are willing to share theirs, but often because of the fast paced community and the need for efficiency, there is not time enough for the stories to be told. The shared activity of story telling often brings much joy, some laughter and a feeling of belonging to all of us.
Conversations with Ms. M and Ms. D
Ms. M and Ms. D have lived at the retirement community for some time now. I have had the opportunity to come to know them over the course of this time, typically by engaging each one in conversation almost daily. Ms. M and Ms. D are almost opposites in personality, Ms M is outgoing and outspoken while Ms. D is introverted and soft spoken.
We all share a common bond of attending a nearby university and oddly enough following similar educational pathways across several generations. Ms. M and Ms. D were teachers with Ms. M teaching High School and Ms. D teaching Primary School.
Typically, our conversations are short and direct along the lines of: "When will the dining room open or What's good on the menu today?" Occasionally we might dig into family a little or talk about something forgotten or lost. However, we are often anxious to enter the dining room, to our familiar seats, and begin the comforting ritual of enjoying our meal and social time.
Today, A Special Conversation
Today, we sat waiting in anticipation of the evening meal. As I sat with Ms. M and Ms. D we began a conversation. I had been away for the past week at a training session, so naturally Ms. M and Ms. D inquired as to where I was and what I was doing. I mentioned that I had gone to a nearby city to a meeting for training.
Ms. D then mentioned that she had lived and worked in the city and then Ms. M chimed in add "me too!" We talked a bit about the city and what they had done there, how much we enjoyed the city and how much it has changed. Ms. D talked about her experience as a primary school teacher, she said: " I just loved the little ones." Then Ms. M spoke to say: "I took my girls shopping at Christmas time." reminiscing about her underprivileged high school girls.
We then began to talk about our experiences at the University. Ms. M began to tell of how she and her husband both attended and had to learn Chinese. "You see, it was the 40's and they needed us to do that, you know the WAR!" Ms D spoke to say, " My mom was best friends with the dean of girls, so I had to go there, She got me in."
Ms. D then confessed: "I didn't like the way they taught the kids, it was boring. So, I went back to school to learn something new............ and I taught my kids the Hokey-Pokey," as she leaned forward and perched herself on the edge of her chair, intently engaged.
The doors to the dining room swung open with a clatter as the magnetic door stops engaged. Ms. M, who typically rushes for the dining room, sat with anticipation, waiting for the conversation to continue. Ms. D was perched on the edge of her seat waiting to chime in, and I could not move, wanting so desperately to continue the conversation, knowing it must end. We were riveted together in time. Ms. M and Ms. D taken back to a time of fond memory, their eyes wide open with excitement, released from the bondage of Alzheimer's to find and rekindle their identity. A seldom ventured pathway in the forest of Alzheimer's.
Me, I was along for the ride, because the joy of the story holds the meaning of life.
Look At Me by Frank Warman 1986 (Northport VAMC)
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