Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain that causes people to slowly lose their memory and mental abilities as they grow old.
With that said, could there be an art to helping a loved one who is stricken with this horrible disease? If you've ever tried making sense of this crippling condition be assured you're not alone. Currently, I am in the thick of it.
"What does that mean?" the aging yet wise gentleman asked his son while walking toward the doors of this strange new place others called his home. His son patiently replied, "Pop, this is where your apartment is; you know the one with all your art on the walls." As I looked at my husband, I could see the heartache behind his smile, and the sadness in his eyes. While he walked his dad inside his new home, I watched as the roles of parent and child were forever reversed.
So what is the art of coping with Alzheimer's? For me, it's just being myself. I like to visit my father-in-law as often as I can. But there have been times - and this is not an easy thing to admit -- I'd rather be doing other things in my spare time. But then I think, it's not all about me. What can be more important than putting a smile on a loved one's face? Ironically, as soon as I see Dick all my anxieties and fears melt away.
I talk to my father-in-law just like I always have. I still make silly jokes and sing songs I have no business singing. On a rare occasion, I will get a funny face back or a wide eyed gesture; -- this makes my day.
Some days, I sit with Dick in the common room of his assisted living, I try to conjure up something to talk about. Politics? Religion? And then I remember the best piece of advice Dick used to give his friends and family. He would say you should never talk about sex, religion or politics. Once, I heard a story about how a friend tried to broach one of these topics with Dick. That friend was shut down immediately. I bet that guy never tried that again. Every man has a code and that was Dick's.
In the past, one of my most enjoyable times with my father-in-law was when we would have a cocktail together during the holidays. His choice of alcohol was vodka on the rocks, while I enjoyed my glass of merlot. Years later, we love to chuckle about Dick's favorite quote when it's time to sit back and enjoy a cocktail. He would say, "It must be 5:00 somewhere."
Looking back, I recall finding a sense of peace watching him sitting cross-legged, in his favorite spot on the couch. There was a calming quality about his routine that I so admired. He was content, and no amount of money can buy contentment.
Friends and family often talk about how Dick's career was truly one of a kind. To this day, his former partner and best friend still shakes his head when he talks about how talented Dick was. After Dick retired from his career as a highly respected Art Director in New York City he stopped making his own customized Christmas cards, his partner was so disappointed. He asked Dick, "What happened to the cards?" and Dick just smiled and sweetly replied, "I didn't want to do it anymore." It was as if he had "been there, done that" and was ready to let it go.
That always struck me as strange he could let it go so easily. The more I think about it I realize that if something is truly part of your core you never really let it go. You may not be working on it anymore, but it's always there. Like the love for an ailing parent; even though circumstances change, the love is always there, and you can never let it go.
Lately, I have been contemplating the art of old age specifically Alzheimer's disease. Is there really an art to living this way? It seems as though the older people get, the more inconvenient it is to love them unconditionally like we used to -- especially if they are hung up with a health problem. Whether it's Alzheimer's or cancer it's not fun to watch these diseases take over someone we once looked to for advice, support and love. Now the tables are turned. The question, is can we handle it?
Now, when I visit my father- in-law I just take it all in. I sit quietly if he wants me to. I talk and update him on the day's events if I feel like he might be interested;. But most importantly I am just there with him, sitting with him and holding his hand. I am often surprised at the quirky smile he gives me, just to let me know he is "still in there."
He knows I cherish it, I know he knows I do. Another thing I can't help but think about is that if it wasn't for him my husband would not exist on this planet. Of course, he had some help, but I can't stop being grateful for what he has already given me. A thank you seems so limited. So in my quiet way, I sit there with him being forever grateful. I wish he knew what I was thinking about, and I wish we could talk about it in the way we used to, but we can't. So I am content just being quiet with him holding his hand. Let me ask you -- If we don't treasure these loved one who literally gave us life or the life of someone we love, then what are we treasuring?
My message is simple. If you have a friend, family member or a special loved one that is going through something that sounds similar to what I am describing just sit there with them and share the moment.; You don't have to do much more than that. A smile, and warm hand to hold is enough. My hope is that when it's my turn and I am out of style, out of touch, and out of my home, I too will have the same quiet love I once gave. And even though I am not the version of myself that I prefer to be -- even if just due to old age, my sheer presence can still be a teachable moment.
I am going to close now by saying, to know Dick Flack is to love and respect him. Despite his illness, his dignity remains unimpaired, and his sense of pride unshakable. Alzheimer's takes from us many things: fond memories, recalling the names of loved ones, and all communication. But dignity? You can't take that -- from Dick Flack anyway.
At the end of it all, I would like to believe that our souls are safe from the demise of our physical bodies. I would also like to believe that the journey is not in vain, and that our sole purpose for being here is to love. Plain and simple.