A Lesson On Love, Family and Alzheimer's

Pat Robertson, Christian television evangelist and ex-Baptist minister, created quite the controversy when he advised that a married man, dating another woman because his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s, should “divorce and start all over.”

I try not to involve myself with the musings of offensive radio hosts, nor do I think it’s wise to judge another person’s situation. But the episode did made me think about my own experience with Alzheimer’s and what it taught me and I thought I’d share it today, on World Alzheimer’s Day.

My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and for ten years, I and my family witnessed her condition deteriorate. As the disease progressed, my grandfather assumed more and more of the housekeeping responsibilities – from cooking to cleaning to doing the laundry. It was truly amazing to watch, considering he had been attended to so dutifully by my grandmother all throughout their marriage. But my grandfather didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to take great pride in being able to care for his wife.

Eventually, it became more than he could handle (just managing the steps in the house became a challenge) and he sold their home and moved into a 1-bedroom apartment in the Alzheimer’s ward of an assisted living residence.

Here’s the thing about my grandparents: they were crazy about each other. What they had, in today’s day and age, seems rare. They lived for each other and their love was something fierce, like The Notebook, times ten. But unlike The Notebook, where the children seemed to question the father’s dedication to his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife, the disease only served to bring my family closer together. And unlike The Notebook, my grandmother rarely forgot my grandfather, even when she didn’t recognize him. She sometimes thought my uncle was her husband, which made for some awkward situations all around.

Almost every Sunday and every holiday, all the kids (six total) and the gaggle of grandchildren, would gather when they could in the 1-bedroom apartment at the assisted living home and we’d just be a family. I changed my grandmother’s diapers. Most of the time she didn’t have a clue to who I was. Sometimes she thought I was a nice, young man. But I played along because I knew who she was and what she meant to me, and that’s all that mattered.

Pat Robertson equated Alzheimer’s to death:  “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because, here is a loved one, this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly, that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone.”

My grandmother was never gone. Even on her worst days, she was still, at age 80, the same fiery, feisty girl from Hagen, Germany who survived the boat ride over to the United States at age 5. Her memory might have left, but it was okay. We remembered for her, what it means to love, and what it means to be a family. And sometimes, almost miraculously, her memory would come back, even after the most dismal of diagnoses.

I was emailing with my aunt and she reminded me of an incident that happened between my mom and one of the staff members at the Alzheimer’s home:

Your mother could have taught [Pat Robertson] a lesson. When a staffer told Linda to just “dress your mother in cheap sweat shirts and pants, she won’t know the difference,” Linda turned to her and said, “My mother never dressed in cheap sweats and never will. And believe me she knows the difference. She always has a smile on her face when we dress her up in something new.”

You know I have such pride in the way our family took care of Mom….every one of us did what we could, and that is something to be very proud of.

To this day, I can’t hate Alzheimer’s. It taught me a lot about myself, about loving, and about family.

So while it might not be the Bible, I’ll sum this up with a quote from The Beatles’ The End: The love you take is equal to the love you make. Alzheimer’s taught me that lesson. I hope anyone is fortunate enough to learn it.

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  1. Thanks, Amy, for the beautiful lesson. One of the most touching videos I ever saw was an interview with a pastor whose wife got Alzheimer’s. They had been a missionary family and had moved into a position of authority as the Dean of a religious college in the south. Yet he gave it up to care for her. His feelings were much the same as those you expressed where he didn’t see a vacant shell but loved her both in the past and in the present. It made me realize that those with Alzheimer’s were people and not some strange zombie to avoid. I think Pat Robertson has forgotten that we often grow most when we walk through adversity and come through with love and grace.

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