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Learning from Alzheimer’s

Life Lessons taught by one of the world’s most renowned diseases

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An incurable disease affecting an estimated 24 million people worldwide, Alzheimer’s may seem like a thundercloud with no silver lining. It is a constant fog, raining feelings of loss and grief for a life that has yet to finish living. Bringing with it symptoms like dementia and memory loss, you may wonder what rays of sun could possibly shine through this thundercloud? Witnessing the progression of Alzheimer’s, this light comes from teachings that share new perspectives on the life that we are all living.

Most Things Don’t Matter

The brand of a spoon or the price of your honeymoon are just not that important. Sure, they can bring you small moments of joy, but it is hard to make them last. When have you ever seen an Alzheimer’s patient go around looking for their Gucci scarf?

Material goods are easily forgotten and do little for you on the brink of dementia. The sad part is that most people are aware of this, but somehow continue confusing “hustle” with “purpose”. The chase for work, status, and money takes precedence, and $6000 handbags become symbols of bliss.

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The insignificant things that humans often overthink are underthought- if not forgotten by most Alzheimer’s patients.

The argument you had with your ex-best friend a few years back- it doesn’t matter who was right.

That scene you made at your ex-wife’s family holiday- it doesn’t matter how embarrassing it was.

That class you failed twice in college- you guessed it… doesn’t matter.

In the end, all 200 of your wedding guests won’t visit your nursing home, and the clothes that once filled your wardrobe will be replaced by 5 outfits you will repeatedly wear for the rest of your days.

We spend so much of our lives working to please others, that sometimes it takes diseases like Alzheimer’s to teach us the importance of living for ourselves.

Slowing Down

In the past, Western society has painted elders as slow, clueless creatures, but what if this stillness is one of the silver linings of an aging mind?

Daily, everything is a grind that must happen “pronto”, “ASAP”, as quickly as possible. Some people even have to eat in their cars! Individuals living with Alzheimer’s could never! They actually walk in their gardens, where they stop and smell the flowers (no seriously, they do!). They appreciate the taste of tropical juice and examine the patterns on their socks.

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This level of mindfulness is something everybody needs to learn. Especially caregivers, who struggle with frustration more and more as the disease progresses.

An Alzheimer's patient, for example, once asked his son about the weather in Bologna (Italy), 26 different times in one day. His son never got frustrated or called out the irrelevance of the fact when they live in Canada- he answered the question every time as if it were being asked for the first time.

Despite patience running thinner, caregivers learn to manage complex emotions and grow to be more understanding in the process.

Nothing Lasts Forever

Memory, like everything else in this physical world, is fleeting. All those days spent at school, at work, or at home may blur into just a few moments that a mind in memory care clings to until it finally lets go. This lesson in the ephemeral nature of everything that is important to us should inspire us to live in the moment.

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Even with Alzheimer’s, the little moments count. I once met Phil, a senior with Alzheimer’s who loves announcing his interest in making cherry pie. He does not remember the recipe, but like him, countless other individuals remember the tastes of their favorite cookies, or the sound of the city they used to inhabit- the little things most of us overlook in the chaos of daily life.

Someone with dementia could be living their childhood one second, looking for mom at the grocery store. The next, they could be parenting their newborn. All we can do as caregivers is put their minds at ease- just for a moment at a time.

And for us now, whether it is one particularly great chocolate bar, or setting of the evening sun through the window, it is important to allow ourselves to live in the moment.

Agree and Let Go

A woman from Canada has dementia and visits her late sister in the room next door to hers at the long-term care home. Her caregivers do not tell her the truth, but agree and play along. In life, we are so caught up trying to be right all the time that it is hard to just agree and let go, to let people live their own realities even if we do not quite understand how.

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Looking after somebody with Alzheimer’s, you never truly know what the next day will bring but somehow it always involves “agreeing and letting go”, a lesson that carries over to many other areas of life.

Alzheimer’s Does Not Take Away Love

It is tough to witness Alzheimer’s take its course without imagining ourselves in that position. I cannot help but wonder who would care for me, who would not, what and who would I remember? You can bet that people living with dementia did not envision themselves at their nursing home living with strangers ten years back.

Nevertheless, you will notice that the heart remembers long after the mind forgets. This lesson is for all of us to live with our hearts more and give our minds a break. Alzheimer’s or not, happy people will always end up smiling.

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It is important to note that Alzheimer’s disease does not affect everyone the same way or for the same period of time. Some people are calm and content, while others become irritable and aggressive. This way, the experience of their caregivers will also vary, as will the lessons they learn throughout. One thing is for sure- everyone is on their own journey, but patience, love, and acceptance will endure.

Sources:

Mayeux, R., & Stern, Y. (2012). Epidemiology of Alzheimer disease. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 2(8), a006239. https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a006239

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