Sunday, August 17, 2014


Student assembly address:

On my way back from dropping my youngest son off at Purdue this weekend, I was listening to National Public Radio, and they were doing a story on living with someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Most of you know that Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that affects memory, thinking and reasoning skills— and for women over sixty, there’s a one in six chance that your grandmother or great-grandmother might start showing some symptoms, so it’s pretty common. You may have someone in your family that has Alzheimer’s, and if you do, you know it’s hard on the family because when the disease becomes advanced, people don’t remember much about their past, and when they do remember, they often don’t have the timeline right—something that happened forty years ago in their mind might have happened yesterday, and even worse, they often forget their loved ones, or important details about their loved ones’ lives, of even their children themselves.

Since ‘who we are’ is a function of our memories and experiences, people with Alzheimer’s often change personalities, and that too, is very difficult for loved ones.

The NPR feature concerned a middle-aged couple caring for their elderly mother.  In her younger years, this woman was so proper that she believed that saying the word “Dang” or “Shoot” was swearing, but now, when the daughter didn’t let her have a second bowl of ice cream, she called her daughter a “supreme –itch.” In fact, it was war all the time in the household, because the couple found themselves always correcting their mother—“No, Mom, your husband’s name was Frank, not Bill.” “No Mom, that’s Jenny, your grand-daughter.” “No, Mom, you have never been to France” and things like that, which meant that the woman was being constantly reminded of her Alzheimer’s, constantly frustrated by her declining memory, constantly angry. It was as if they couldn’t even talk to her anymore without everyone getting upset.  

So they began to read research and talk with Alzheimer experts about that precise question: How do we talk to her? Should we, for example, correct her? Should we try and cue her to reality by placing reminders about who the president is, what the date is, pictures of her children with labels around her room, to keep her from losing her memory even faster?

And the fundamental insight they came away with is—no, don’t try and correct. If you want to have a relationship with your mother with advanced Alzheimer’s, you should instead enter her world in conversation, on its own terms, where ever she takes the conversation.

They described this amusing back and forth as an example of what they meant:

Mother, looking out the window:  “The monkeys are back in the trees.” (How might we respond? Those aren’t monkeys, mom, those are squirrels.”)

Instead, the son in law says, “Are they back already? They’re a little early this year—it’s not their season yet.”

Mother: “No, they’re back, I’m looking at them.

Son in law, looking out the window: “I wonder if they’d make good pets?”

Mother: “Oh heaven’s no, you couldn’t bring monkeys into the house. They’re not house-broken.”

Son: “Well, they’d have to be trained…and wear pants.”

And they proceeded to have an extended conversation about it, with the mother obviously pleased to be engaging in what felt to her to be human dialogue with someone—a very basic human need.

Honestly, I was a bit moved by the whole NPR story—impressed first of all by this couple who loved their mother so much as to keep her in their home, but also that they looked for ways to lovingly engage her, even while her mind was failing.  The willingness to bracket themselves and “enter into her world, on its own terms” seems to me to be a genuine act of selfless love.

But here’s the cool part. According to this couple, when they started bracketing, letting her lead the conversation, and engaging her on her terms, the warring ceased, she was happier, and they were happier, as they felt good to be connecting with her again, however amusing the conversation became. 

We are blessed here in our daily interactions with each other not to be dealing with Alzheimer’s patients. But all of us have the human need to connect, and if we can develop this skill of bracketing—of putting the other person first in the conversation—we can both build them up, but in so doing--following the laws of spiritual physics which says the more we give to others the happier we become—we can build ourselves up in the process.

Try really paying attention to your younger sister or brother, or your mom or dad, or your friend, without an agenda, on their terms alone, totaling entering their world in the conversation. I think you’ll be pretty amazed at how much power we have to make others feel good about who they are. 

No comments: