Finding Happiness in Alzheimer’s


Have you seen Walter? I need to borrow his red tractor tomorrow morning.

I tell Paul that I haven’t seen Walter yet, but could he tell me what he looks like? When this isn’t comforting, I suggest that he can borrow my tractor. Even though it’s green. But according to Paul, a green tractor just won’t do, and asking Walter about it tomorrow will be far too late. So I ask him what Walter looks like, and he reassures me that I’ve met him before. I tell Paul that I’ll be sure to let him know if I see Walter before morning. This satisfies Paul and he begins to walk back to his room.

You’re the coldest fish I’ve ever met.

I can do nothing but apologize when Anna tells me this. Yet she mishears me and thinks that, instead of being remorseful, I am glad for this perceived accolade. I quickly reassure her that I am indeed sorry. Within minutes, her anger turns to appreciation and, in her eyes, my chilly fish-like characteristics have thawed to what she calls a “warm heart.” I am amazed at how quickly she has changed her opinion, and wonder just how quickly it might reverse itself again.

I’m waiting for the bus to go have lunch with my mother.

By now, I’m grateful that it seems like instinct to respond to this type of statement. Never would I tell Mary that her mother isn’t coming for lunch. Or that there’s no point in waiting for the bus; it isn’t going to come. Mentioning that it’s three in the afternoon would simply be irrelevant. Because, what do I know? Instead, I ask her if she wants to come do an activity with me to pass the time before the bus comes.

What’s that?

I’m walking down the hallway with Margaret, hand in hand. Alzheimer’s has dimmed her ability to speak in clear, articulate sentences, yet the passion and emotion behind her attempts remain bright. As we walk, I point out the beautiful spring day, sun shining through the window.

“Isn’t it beautiful, Margaret?” I ask. She answers, and it is her emotions, not her words, that I can understand. She smiles and gestures with her free hand, implying that “it’s about time for some nice weather.” We continue, with Margaret’s bright smile matching the sunshine and the color of her sweatshirt. “Margaret, I love your shirt,” I say, pointing to the intricate design on the front. Again, she answers with words that could be passed off as inarticulate mumbles. However her body language says it all. As she looks down at her shirt, she uses her hand to motion to what she’s wearing, making a somewhat surprised face at the same time. By her tone of voice, it’s as if she’s saying, “What? This old thing?” Finally, we encounter a table. In the corner sits a box of tissues. Without hesitation, Margaret looks at the box and says, clear as day, “What’s that?”

It’s incredible to see such a transformation in just a few seconds. I don’t have the medical background to know how Margaret can go from mumbled, incoherent words to a crisp, clean sentence. However, this moment holds much more significance for me than any biological explanation ever could. It shows that she knew what she wanted to say. She was not lacking the ability to create thoughts (although I never thought this was the case), rather running after her elusive ability to express the thoughts she had. Just as the window acted as a glimpse into the sunny spring day outside, our encounter with the tissue box served as a glimpse into the intricacies of Alzheimer’s disease. In a sense, Margaret became a face of Alzheimer’s for me. She showed me that, in her case, Alzheimer’s couldn’t take away her desire to express thoughts and emotions. It just forced her to be more expressive with body language and those around her to be more receptive of it. At the same time, I learned to be grateful for my own ability to speak, something I had never really considered before.

Happy.

I wanted Glorine to participate. Her smile filled the room with warmth and her eyes were wide with excitement, but for me, that wasn’t enough. Her hands still remained motionless on her lap. I envisioned her mimicking the sign language I was teaching—at least one word, one try. Despite her end-stage Alzheimer’s, this seemed like a sensible objective. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was on the Alzheimer’s floor at the nursing home I volunteer at. It had been over two years since I created the sign language activity for these residents. Each person sitting on the surrounding couches was at a different stage in their fight against this memory-stealing, personality-altering disease. Yet they all had something in common. Just like every other Sunday, they would forget what I taught them within a matter of minutes—Glorine included. But that wasn’t the point. I knew that with a little extra encouragement, Glorine could do it.

I continued with the activity, showing the residents my homemade “cue cards” and teaching them the corresponding signs. Each word sparked conversation from the residents. As I taught the sign for “garden,” Denise reveled in memories of growing mustard greens in her Southern hometown. With the sign for “hamburger,” the eyes of a petite woman named Mary quickly widened, and I guessed that her appetite was growing at a similar rate. “Dog” brought forth a smile from Chet, who told us about Rebel, his German Shepherd who always rode shotgun during his long truck-driving days.

Word by word, the residents became more enthusiastic. Glorine watched the residents as they spoke, and from this I knew she was listening. Her hands remained on her lap, though, not yet ready to try a sign. But her smile was still radiating warmth and I knew her interest had not yet ceased. The next word was “happy.” I showed the residents a card with a bright smiling face on it. As I brushed my hands against my shoulders, demonstrating the sign I’ve known for so long, Glorine lifted her hands off of her lap. She raised them to her shoulders and, with her ever-present smile, she signed the word “happy.” Her hands weren’t perfectly positioned. She wasn’t even touching her shoulders. But she was signing the word I was teaching. Her face was portraying happiness, a happiness that can sometimes be lost to Alzheimer’s.

The goal I had set was achieved in that moment, yet I knew it was one I would have for Glorine each week. She would soon forget the sign for “happy,” and the mere fact that she had learned sign language at all. Long-term retention had never been my goal, though. Instead, the focus was on “fighting” this cognitively debilitating disease with happiness. In that half hour, Glorine had smiled. She had laughed when others told funny stories. She had looked at and reacted to the pictures I had shown her. I knew firsthand that for her, this was an accomplishment. Sign language seemed to become an escape for the residents, an activity that encouraged moment-by-moment achievements. At this moment, the achievement for Glorine was communication. She was accustomed to expressing herself without spoken words, something that might be a struggle to those of us who take our abilities to communicate for granted. However, as Glorine signed “happy,” I continued to learn that while Alzheimer’s can strip a person of many things, it cannot take away the ability to feel and express emotions.

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Essay from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America Teens for Alzheimer’s Awareness college scholarship competition, reprinted with permission of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). For more information about AFA and the Young Leaders of the AFA, visit www.alzfdn.org or www.youngleadersofafa.org.

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