If I had to venture a guess as to why I feel a sense of fulfillment in working with patients with Alzheimer’s disease, I would probably say it was “love”.
And by love, I mean an honest appreciation for someone’s loved one. Someone who both loves and who is loved. I am compelled to reach that place in their brains, the one that feels acceptance and safety. The place that can no longer deliver the message, but can recognize its warmth. Alzheimer’s can’t touch that place.
But I can.
There is always more than one victim. There is the person who is literally losing his mind- terrified, confused, anxious. There is the spouse who literally losing his or her spouse- who is also terrified, confused, and anxious. It tears me in two. There must be a way to help.
Sadly, there is little I can do. I wear the hat of an occupational therapist, and the tiara of The Dementia Queen, but most days I offer nothing more than band-aids and quick fixes. Sometimes they work; they provide temporary answers to slippery and complicated problems. I educate caregivers in hopes that preparing for the worst will somehow ease its impact, but it leaves many issues yet unanswered. I help, a little. But the way I think I make the most difference is not as a healthcare provider.
It is as a human being.
As person busy in the most productive years of my life- family, career, friends, community- I am acutely aware that its permanence is an illusion. It could all tumble down in an instant. I am also aware, because of the folks I meet every day, that it will all very likely be taken from me anyway, bit by precious bit, by Alzheimer’s disease. Either way, life is a precarious journey.
So what can I offer?
I love my patients with Alzheimer’s disease because I can, and because it helps. I appreciate the fact that they used to be me, and that those wonderful memories are carefully stored in the folds of their crinkled cerebrums. I know how love feels, and I know how to make someone feel loved.
It is not rocket science.
Love in every form… for a spouse, for a child, for a pet, for a job, for a friend, for a home… is a virtual location of their brains that is completely intact. And if you connect with that tender place, tucked discreetly into a crease of their brain matter, you will have beaten Alzheimer’s.
And how exactly do we connect? Ah, there is the surmountable challenge.
What vehicle is still working? Is it hearing? Is it vision? Is it touch? Is it taste?
Get in there and figure it out! At least one out of the five senses is probably functional. Find the mechanism that leads to the place where love remembers.
Hug Betty who is wringing her hands. Guide Robert down the hall to work. Help Sara rock her baby to sleep. Sing with Joe. Eat with Donald. There are ways to make folks feel loved, and they are probably telling you what they are every day.
It is these simple, human strategies that give me the greatest sense of accomplishment. I cannot stop the disease from progressing, but I can be along for the ride.
So until a miracle drug or procedure comes along that renders me unemployed, I will continue my passion for serving this community. I will hone my skills, absorb the science, and figure it out as I go along. I will get to know my patients and their families and their life stories and promptly hide them deep within my own cerebral cortex.
Hopefully, someday, someone will love me enough to go and find them.