Note: This article, written by Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, will appear in the upcoming book, Finding Joy in Alzheimer's: New Hope for Caregivers, by Marie Marley, PhD, and Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN.
Those who have a loved one with Alzheimer's may ask themselves, "If there is a God, why would he/she allow my loved one to develop Alzheimer's in the first place? We don't deserve this. Life is so cruel and unfair."
How many of us have heard Alzheimer's caregivers say something like the statement above? How many of us have said this ourselves, or at least thought it? The age-old question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is certainly relevant to our present topic.
Trying to answer such a question is beyond the scope of this article. Furthermore, we don't presume to be qualified to do justice to that discussion, but we do know from experience that resentment in general, and against God in particular, can poison one's journey of caregiving. As Malachy McCourt once said, "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."
Facing the Herculean challenges of caregiving requires all the strength you can muster, including spiritual strength. It has been our experience that caregivers who develop what we would call "spiritual intentionality" are better able to face these challenges and retain their joy and hope than those who seek to go it alone, fueled by denial, anger and resentment.
It is our belief that such resentment and anger is more often than not directed at God, whether or not this is recognized and acknowledged. This attitude can be exhausting, and can make a caregiver feel all alone to carry the weight of the world.
Spiritual intentionality in caregiving means cultivating the capacity to give meaning to suffering, to see problems and challenges which confront you and your loved one as opportunities for growth, transformation and greater expression of love in the act of caring for another.
This process is just that -- a process -- and is not necessarily intuitive. It is certainly not easy, and takes commitment, but it must begin with letting go, with realizing you are not in control of the circumstances. You can choose how you will respond to them. Will resentment and anger toward God rule the day, or will you feel peace, serenity and love?
It is obvious which would be the healthier of the two options, for both you and the person with Alzheimer's, and the process should be one of both giving and receiving. Those who only give and are not open to receive energy and presence and love from people with Alzheimer's disease often will experience burn out.
You may not be what you would call spiritual or religious. However, the bottom line is that the road will be much smoother, and the capacity to experience joy in relationship with people who have Alzheimer's much greater if you can acknowledge that you need help from God, and that help is available.
Dr. James Houston, Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC and a caregiver himself, said in a recent interview:
The pain that is brought into God's presence enriches us for the rest of our lives, but the pain that is borne in self-reliance and in a stoic fashion, repressing all emotion, brings death. In faith, we have the wonderful knowledge that we are never carrying the pain of caregiving on our own.
In our opinion, the question to be asked is not, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" but "How do we and the ones we care for make the most of the present situation, grow in the process and live as joyfully, peacefully and lovingly as possible?"
We assert that to do this you really do have to make peace with God and learn to put away resentment.
Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.