Trying to see past the Alzheimer’s

I was reading a fascinating article today about a program at Harvard that connects college students with those suffering from Alzheimer’s in nursing homes. The students visit their “buddy” each week, and the unique part of the program is that it tries to connect resident and student by interest. So one student spends time talking about science with a resident who loves the same subject. It sounds like a neat program. The student that founded the program said, “When you have a family member with dementia, you know who they were, so you really see the decline and what’s not there. That’s one of the cool things about this program. We get to see what is still there.”

This is one image of my father I like to envision when I think of him now, instead of how he looked when he was dying.

This is so true. It’s so difficult as a family caregiver to ignore the pieces of your loved one that become lost to Alzheimer’s, instead of focusing on the core of the person who still remains. I remember different nurses at different hospitals commenting on my dad, “I’d love to see photos of your dad when he was younger. You can tell he was a handsome guy.” When I first heard this, I was shocked. All I could see was the pitiful, emaciated, confused man curled up in the hospital bed. But the nurses had the wisdom to see beyond the present, and imagine the past of a stranger they were not familiar with. They could peel off that layer of dementia and sickness and see who was really underneath. It’s a gift that often eludes those of us that are family members.

Of course, it’s unlikely that a family member can ever be as objective as a stranger can be in this situation. We should not feel guilty for acknowledging the loss and the damage that this disease causes. But it is worth taking a moment to step back and try to see our afflicted loved ones through the eyes of a kind stranger, instead of through the warped lens of dementia.

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