September 11, 2013

Alzheimer's and . . . Gratitude? Two Views

I encountered two surprising reactions to Alzheimer’s last week: one from a man dealing with the disease, the other from a woman whose father is slipping away. The common element in their responses was something I haven’t really seen before in the consideration of this difficult illness: gratitude.

Gratitude from a Man with Alzheimer’s
The following comments graced David Hilfiker’s remarkable blog, “Watching the Lights Go Out: A Memoir from Inside Alzheimer’s Disease.” David is 68, a retired doctor, lives here in Washington, and shares his thoughts here:

Here’s what David wrote on September 3:

Weeping in Church

I’ve been more emotionally open since my diagnosis of Alzheimer's, and I like it. I’ve written about this deeper emotional experience before, but I continue to be amazed and grateful for this new part of my life.

I am enjoying contact with people more, especially the brief contacts with people I know well. I’m physically touching people more, feeling their concern for me, feeling actively grateful for their friendship. As an introvert I still don’t like trying to make conversation with people whom I don’t know (at a party, for instance), but it’s been a bit easier and more enjoyable.

Frequently the beauty or depth of an experience will bring tears to my eyes, especially during our Sunday worship services. Our faith community is fairly small, perhaps forty in attendance every week, so we know each other well. Several mentally challenged people come to our services as do several with mental illnesses in various stages of control.

Every week, we have communion and members of the congregation serve one another. Sometimes, when one of these folks offers me the bread or the juice, I am overwhelmed by profound feelings … of gratitude. Part of it, I think, is the experience of communion itself, the sense that there is something more than friendship or acquaintance that binds our community together. Part of it is the recognition that we—this man or woman who is serving me communion and I—belong to the same human community. In this moment the barriers that I too often put between us drop away. Our commonalities far outweigh our differences. I feel gratitude that this particular person and I come together to share something meaningful with each other. And joy wells up within me.

I don’t know quite how to describe this experience of joy; perhaps, it’s indescribable, but it seems to be physical. It’s as if I’m being broken open to a deeper reality. I feel tightness rising in my throat. My face twists up as if to cry. Tears fill my eyes (but aren’t enough to spill over onto my cheeks). If I’m saying the words of communion, I have to stop for a second or two, almost choking on the words. When I am again able look back at the person, I often experience a moment of peace and sense of deep spiritual connection with him or her.

We also have five or six good singers and musicians who lead the music in the church with creativity and energy. We often sing songs we know well: spirituals, music that one of the musicians has written, beautiful classic hymns. For one of the songs recently, Connie asked those who could to sing the descant. I’ve forgotten the particular song already (no surprise there!), but I won’t forget the welling up of joy in listening to “angel voices.”

On balance, I’m surprised to find, the increase in emotional openness more than compensates for the loss of cognitive function. I don’t expect that that will continue as my impairment gets worse, but for now I’m grateful.


Sublime, David.

Gratitude from a Woman whose Father has Alzheimer’s
Last week, I met a woman whose smile got bigger and brighter the more she spoke of her father's Alzheimer's. Then she said, "He was a horrible man. I hated him. Now he doesn't know who I am. He's happy all the time. For the first time in my life, I like being with him."

Life: always full of surprises.

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