Tuesday, September 13, 2022

How to Deal with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

 “Oh, my gosh. Mr. McMurtrey,” I said. 

He looked at me blankly, waved, then continued placing items on the conveyor belt at the grocery store.

“I’m Elisa,” I went on. “You remember me. From the newspaper?” He used to call me with news tips; we’d laugh and joke. One day he called about a deer that had jumped through a storefront window—and lived—running around the store and drawing the attention of everyone in town. So many memories, but now he looked at me again…bewildered. “Mr. McMurtrey?”

“I don’t know you. But you seem like a real-nice girl.” He smiled, looking much older than his 70+ years.

Studying him, he had the same light in his eyes and an obvious touch of mirth to his smile. But something felt off. “Well, anyway…it’s wonderful to see you,” I said, so surprised that he didn’t remember me.

A woman came from behind us and stood by him. “Excuse me. Do you need something from my husband?”

“No. Not really.” I shook my head.

After a moment, Mr. McMurtrey and his wife finished checking out, and he started heading toward the door. “How do you know him?” his wife suddenly came back and asked me when he’d gotten a few feet away.

“The newspaper. He’d always give me tips.”

Her expression turned a bit softer. “Oh! You’re that Elisa girl. You had the EC Stilson column, right?”

I nodded, so excited she remembered me. It suddenly felt so important to be remembered.

“He loved talking with you.” Then she paused, always keeping an eye on her husband as he approached the store’s exit. “I’m so sorry. He said he didn’t recognize you. He’s…having some memory issues. It’s been hard on all of us.”

“I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. He’s the nicest man.”

“He really is.” Then she explained that she had to “go after him,” and she darted out the automatic doors after waving goodbye.

When I got home and put my groceries away, I sat on my front porch and waited for the kids to get home from school. The wind licked my face, like a dog so happy for me to be home. Birds whistled, sending cryptic messages through the trees. And I closed my eyes and felt every bit of “life” seep into me.

Sometimes it’s hard not thinking too much about the tough things in this world: how people can lose their memories and really “their story,” and how fast one can lose health, relationships, status, and so many other things on a whim.

But as I felt the wind lighting my skin on fire with insight and the birds trilling above me, I remembered Mr. McMurtrey’s eyes and how he hasn’t changed, not really. His spirit is still the same—completely filled with the jovial kind of mirth and sense of play he always showed everyone. He made everyone feel important and special—and I bet he still does.

Since so many people I’ve known have died or lost physical or mental capabilities, sometimes I wonder exactly why it’s so hard. What exactly makes it hurt so much? Especially with losing a loved one? I’ve decided it’s a loss of time—even time already spent. 

It is extremely tough not being able to call and hear their voice. But there’s something else, and that’s what I saw with Mr. McMurtrey. It’s sad when you lose that tie to a memory. I can tell people what it was like when he called about the deer that jumped through the window. But now I’m the only one who really carries that story around. And when I’m gone, that experience will be gone too. No matter how much I talk or write about it, that too will drift away. Like everything we know here on earth. Everything—I believe—except love.

Yet, sitting on the porch none of life’s heartaches seemed to matter because I felt the true power and serene beauty of change. If I were a conscious observer of life, I wouldn’t want to freeze time and stifle everything; I’d want it to always keep flowing right through me. The good, the bad, I guess all of it. It seems that life hands us new situations to learn from, conquer, and then (in turn) help people around us. Sometimes it’s through helping others that we finally see the beauty in our own struggles.

The kids got home, and I gave them extra big hugs. “You coming inside?” Trey asked.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said, so glad that even though I have physical handicaps now, I am not experiencing what I witnessed from my friend at the store.

So, I still don’t know how I completely feel about poor Mr. McMurtrey, but I hope I’ll see him and his wife again. Sure, he might not recognize me, but I’d love to offer a smile, a kind word, just something that will brighten his day like he always brightened mine. 

I guess that’s what I can learn from the moment. I don’t need to be sad for my friend. Instead, I can be grateful that although he’s losing his memory, he hasn’t lost who he really is: a brilliant, wonderfully kind man. And that’s how I’m trying to embrace change today, by once more finding the good.

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