Yesterday morning I was happy to see Kate smile when I woke her for lunch. I told her it made my day to see that smile, and she beamed. Then I told her I would like to take her to lunch. As she started to get out of bed, she wanted to do it on her own without any help from me. Once she was on her feet, she had second thoughts. She extended her hand for me to guide her to the bathroom. It was the kind of moment I felt as though she knew my name and our relationship. Then she asked who I was. I gave her my name and said that I was her husband. She didn’t believe I was her husband, and I said, “Well, let’s say we are friends, very good friends.” She liked that. The balance of the day there were moments when I was sure that she knew me as her husband but many when she did not. She responded to me the same way regardless. In addition, she continued her expressions of appreciation for my taking care of her.
As I reflect on the day, I would say it was a very good day. She was just as confused as ever, but she was happy. What’s more I was happy along with her. I know, however, that many people would not understand this. For example, before Kate got up yesterday, I made up a Rotary meeting I had missed two weeks ago. As I watched from my computer, one of the club members gave an update on several older members and noted that one of them was “suffering with Alzheimer’s.” That is a frequently used way to say that someone is “living with Alzheimer’s” or simply “has Alzheimer’s.” I know the speaker is probably not in touch with how the “Alzheimer’s community” (all people with dementia as well as those who are caregivers or professionals in the field) is beginning to talk about the way we refer to the disease. Many of those with dementia as well as professionals advocate our dropping the word “suffering” when we say that someone has the disease because it can be very misleading.
Speaking for myself, I find “suffering” not to be a good descriptor of Kate’s experience. There is no denying the changes in our lives that I wish hadn’t happened. Most of all I hate those moments of anxiety, fear, or panic that she has sometimes experienced. I feel similarly about all the moments when she recognizes that “something is wrong” with her. I wish she had never had Alzheimer’s, but that is clearly out of my hands.
The only thing that she and I can do is make the best of it, and I believe we have done that. We have kept our focus on what I call our Happy Moments. We take great satisfaction in them and try to put aside the sad ones; therefore, describing our lives as “suffering” doesn’t seem accurate at all. I do, however, wonder about the future. I’m not at all sure exactly what it holds for Kate or how I will respond. I am encouraged by the fact that each of us has been able to adapt thus far. I also know that my father managed well and took care of my mother to the end. He experienced a good bit of stress, but my load is and will continue to be easier than his because I have help and plan to increase it as needed.
Even if this last stage brings with it more sadness than happiness, I believe that saying someone is suffering from Alzheimer’s is not an accurate generalization. I think the emphasis on suffering can be discouraging to those who are recently diagnosed at a time when they need encouragement. The truth is that it is possible for a couple to live happily for years before they encounter the most challenging aspects of the disease. Based on the accounts written by other caregivers, I suspect that some of them may have received the diagnosis late in the disease. That left them with a shorter period of the “almost normal” years. During those years they no doubt realized they were happy but not that they were living happily with Alzheimer’s.
Lest I be guilty of making my own inaccurate generalizations, I should acknowledge that there are a variety of different types of dementia. Each can have different symptoms and time frames. In addition, there are differences from person to person within each type. I suspect suffering with dementia can occur among all types, but I think it is not usually an accurate description of the whole journey for those living with dementia. Furthermore, there are individual differences among caregivers in terms of how we perceive our situations. I admit to being the kind of person who sees the glass as “half-full” rather than “half-empty.”