“Could you please help me find some sheets?” I was surprised when an elderly man asked me for assistance while I was shopping. Instantly, I realized that the eighty-something senior had mistaken me for a store clerk. It was an autumn Sunday afternoon in an Ohio mall, and the slight-built male was dressed like a farmer in his best church clothes. He was neat, in a non-fussy sort of way, but he seemed so alone. I wondered where his spouse was, because you could tell he was the kind of man who had had a wife for so long that he wasn’t functioning well without her.
“Is your wife gone?” I asked guessing he was a recent widower used to his mate buying the household goods. There was a gold wedding band on his small wrinkled hand. It hung on his finger like he had once been larger than he was now.
“No, she’s still alive,” he answered. “She’s in the nursing home, and I go to see her every day.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, that must be difficult,” I said saddened for his situation. “Is she ill? How long have you been married?” I wasn’t trying to pry with my questions. Rather I learned a long time ago, that sometimes the best gift you can give an elderly human being is to simply listen.
His eyes brightened as he told me that they had been together for more than six decades. Then he shared the dreaded diagnosis, “Alzheimer’s. My wife has Alzheimer’s.” In that moment I understood his circumstances.
“More than five million Americans are living with the disease” according to statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association Website, www.alz.org. In addition, “In 2013, 15.5 million caregivers provided an estimated 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care…. “ The progression of this cruel malady is sometimes titled, “The long good-bye.” The physical body of those afflicted might remain intact, but right before your eyes, they die gradually to the person they once were, and a part of you often dies with them.
Understanding Alzheimer’s, enabled me to support my husband in healing from the loss of his late father. Traumatically, the doting dad he adored didn’t even know who my spouse was by the end. I had also experienced the trauma of having someone I loved not recognize me. My great-grandmother had some type of undiagnosed dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, but in the 1970s many folks used the general term, “senility.”
Back then, my formerly wonderful grandma falsely accused my poor mother of starving her. Once, shortly after eating a big dinner followed by a couple pieces of pie while visiting us, I overheard her loudly complain to relatives about not being fed. She was petite in an emaciated sort of way, causing her accusations to seem believable. After my mother’s grandmother went to a nursing home, the last time I visited her, not only did she not know me, but she accused me of stealing money from her bedside bureau. I felt shame and hurt, because as a teenager I didn’t understand how common a false allegation from someone struggling with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia could be.
All of these thoughts came rushing back during my conversation with the elderly stranger who wanted new sheets. I was encouraging him to avoid polyester and look for 100% cotton. I was wondering too, what it was like for him at the nursing home. “Does she know you?” I asked hoping that he was one of the fortunate ones. That despite the ravages of this hideous illness, his wife would still know who he was. Maybe not say his name, but at least that her eyes would light up when he entered the room.
A terrible sadness passed over his countenance as he replied, “Today was the first time that I don’t think she did.”
I was so thankful that I had slowed myself down that afternoon and taken time to listen to his heartbreaking story. I was hopeful that somehow just sharing had lessened his burden of this new loss, because Alzheimer’s is all about stages of grief. Besides, once we have experienced Alzheimer’s firsthand, it can become a calling to lighten the load of another who is walking the treacherous path of the long good-bye, because no one should have to walk that difficult journey alone.
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and Chicken Soup for the Soul contributor. Her Website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com. For more information the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 helpline is 1-800-272-3900.