I visit my mom at least twice a week. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease approximately 4 years ago and lives in an assisted living community dedicated to memory impaired residents. Often when I see her she comments that everything is mixed up, that she can’t remember anything and is very frustrated. I sit opposite her and acknowledge her frustration but can’t really say that I understand what she is going through because I don’t.
When I am with her I often try to put myself in her place. What if I tried to remember my spouse’s death but couldn’t remember when it was, if I was at the funeral or what the cause of death was. What if I searched my memory and couldn’t remember if I have one or two children and don’t know where they were born. Imagining this situation makes me very anxious. I ask myself the question “ If I no longer have a past do I have an identity? Would I become a non-entity?”
Certainly my mother hasn’t disappeared. She is a warm loving presence in her community. Everyone knows who she is and comments on her friendly disposition and her sense of humor. It is interesting to note that since she has begun to lose her memory she is a warmer, more caring person. She is very thankful for any show of kindness by anyone in her community and is so happy when I come to see her.
Perhaps there is a valuable lesson here. Doesn’t our memory often define who we are? When we are faced with a decision don’t we usually look back in our past and see how we handled it before? Or when we are in a challenging situation don’t we often determine what we will do based on our success or failure in similar situations in the past.
Isn’t this approach to life very much like driving on the road looking in the rear view mirror? How much of our experience is actually new and fresh? Or is it mostly a rehash of what we’ve done before? With this perspective I have begun to look at memory in a new way. If I had no memory wouldn’t each experience be interesting and unique? Wouldn’t it be very much like a young child facing life for the first time?
Perhaps we should begin to look at Alzheimer’s patients as those who live life totally in the present. When is it that they begin to accept their inability to recall events and live life totally now? And when they are able to do that doesn’t life become a never ending new experience with no barriers or limitations?