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When Someone No longer Remembers

When Someone No Longer Remembers

My memory isn’t what it was. The minute I turned 50, something happened. It’s as if small holes began to develop in my brain, and little bits of information started to disappear. In fact, I sometimes refer to myself as “Swiss Cheese Brain,” and the holes seem to grow in number and size as the days go by.

The loss of bits of information can eventually become the loss of memories. When this begins to happen, we lose pieces of our past and our relationships. If memory loss continues, it can seem like the walls are closing in and that our lives are shrinking.

Some memory issues can become serious indeed. Many have faced the following scenario.

First, you realize they’re a little forgetful. Then something happens and you discover it's more than that. As time goes on, you come to the realization they’ll remember less next month than they do today.

Finally, you're hit with the boulder of truth: they no longer remember. They no longer remember because they can't. This is the valley of Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Perhaps because I’m a chaplain, my mind goes to Psalm 23, and the stark statement, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...”

The original Hebrew of this phrase means to journey slowly and carefully through a deep, dark place we’ve never been before. It’s very different from the green pastures and still waters that came before. This valley is nothing like the life we’ve known up to this point.

For our purposes here, we’ll call it “The Valley of No Longer Remembering.” For those who have to walk this valley with someone close to them, there are three important facts to keep in mind.

Fact #1: You aren’t alone on this journey.

In the Valley-of-No-Longer-Remembering, there are plenty of other people here. They too are scared, wondering, and troubled. Together, we can not only get through this, but make a huge difference in the lives of those we love.

Dementia and Alzheimer's are terrible diseases. After interacting with dozens of patients and their families, the picture that comes to my mind is of a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces. This puzzle represents the person’s life - their experiences, relationships, and memories.

At one time all the pieces were there and intact, showing to the world a full, beautiful life. Then one day, a piece disappears. The person looks for it, but can’t find it. It’s just gone. Then another piece disappears. Then another.

Over time more pieces disappear, revealing gaps in the picture of their life. Finally there are more gaps than puzzle pieces left.

“It’s like I’m losing him in pieces,” Samantha said of her husband Stan. “He’s slowly slipping away. I’ve been losing him for years.”

Losing a person one piece at a time. This is awful. Excruciating.

How do you handle this? This brings us to the second important fact.

Fact #2: They may no longer remember, but you do.

You can choose to remember them as they once were. Hang on to the good and wonderful times. Tell the stories. This can give you the courage and strength to face who they’re becoming.

You're not alone. Ever. They can no longer remember, but you can.

When Dementia and Alzheimer's invade, they change the rules of life. You inherit a double load. You didn't ask for or want it. You had no say in it at all.

You may feel angry or trapped. That's okay. Many feel more anxious, and even depressed. That's also natural.

Then on top of everything, there’s the unwanted boatload of worry that comes sailing into your port, represented by questions like:

"What’s going to happen?”

“How can I keep this up?”

“What if I get sick or something happens to me?"

"Why is this happening? What's the purpose in this?"

You think, "They don’t deserve this. The family doesn't deserve this. I don’t deserve this!"

There are no easy answers. One thing is certain: your life has changed forever.

You didn't want this, but now that it's here, what do you do?

This is an opportunity for truly selfless service. You are serving someone who can give nothing in return. There will come a time when they can't say thank you or show any appreciation. And they won't remember what you did later.

This kind of deep service counts. This is part of love, and love always matters. You may not see the difference you’re making, but this doesn't diminish love's power in any way.

And in caring for your loved one, you become one of the examples our world so desperately needs. You become a hero. Without trying to be so, and perhaps feeling you’re at the end of your rope, you become an inspiration to those around you.

I believe there are very special blessings that come with this kind of serving-those-who-can't-give-back-and-won't-remember-later caregiving. These are blessings you may not be aware of until years later. True service and selfless love have immeasurable impact. The ripple effects go on forever.

Even in the midst of Dementia and Alzheimer's, love can win. Love will triumph. It may not be with a trumpet blast, a parade, or a host of wonderful feelings. It may win quietly, in the depths of you own heart in ways that you’re not aware of. Love wins because you dared to endure in the face of losing-your-loved-one-by-pieces. You walked the valley-of-no-longer-remembering with them.

That's courageous, loving, and heroic.

Fact #3: Dementia and Alzheimer’s will not win. You can love them, and yourself, through this.

Your presence and your touch matters. Keep reaching out to them. Learn to appreciate the power of still, quiet moments, just the two of you. Surround them with and talk about special objects full of meaning. Enlist the help of others to make sure you’re taking good care of yourself.

And finally, on behalf of those who can no longer tell you, let me say it: “Thank you for being with me. I can’t do this alone, but I can with you. You’re my hero. I love you.”

Gary Roe is an author, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. Visit him at www.garyroe.com or contact him at groe@hospicebrazosvalley.org .