People with Alzheimer's can remember and experience strong emotions related to a past event even if they can't remember the facts surrounding the occasion. Here's a true story that illustrates that fact.
I had a beautiful, relaxed drive to visit Ed, my beloved Romanian soul mate of 30 years, at the nursing home one lazy Sunday afternoon. I wandered into his room and found he was in the bathroom, so I sat in the rocker and waited. My eyes were drawn, as was often the case, to his stuffed animal collection, which had grown quite large. He loved stuffed animals.
On the sofa I noticed that he, or possibly an aide, had positioned them in a rather artistic grouping. The enormous two-foot bunny was in the back and the others had been placed in a semi-circle around it. There was The Little Yellow One, the chick, and Adorable, the bunny. Then the others, who didn't have names, because two were the most he could both think of and remember. There were two medium-sized blue bunnies, the two Care Bears, and a tiny 'Uncle Sam' teddy bear wearing a red and white striped top hat.
That day I'd decided to show Ed the cards and photos I'd found in his storage unit while I was cleaning it out. It was my friend Rosa's idea - I never would have thought of doing that myself.
"Ma-r-r-rie!" he exclaimed, coming out of the bathroom. "I'm r-r-really happy to see you. You are so beautiful!"
He always started off every visit by telling me how beautiful I was. I loved that in him.
Then he sat down, careful not to disturb the little animals.
"Ed, I found some old photos and cards that I sent you many years ago and I'm going to show them to you today."
"Marvelous! Superb!" he answered, using the words he always used when he was happy about something.
I decided to start with the cards. Although he was no longer able to read books or the newspaper, I hoped he'd still be capable of reading the cards. He was, and he even seemed to understand what he read. He laughed at the funny ones and responded more seriously to the others.
After he'd seen them all he looked up at me and said in a reverent tone of voice, "Ma-r-r-rie, I am so touched that you kept these cards all these years."
I didn't even try explaining that he was the one who had kept them.
Next we looked at the photographs. Some were from his childhood. There was one of him around age six wearing a sailor suit and posing with his father, and another with him and his grandparents, sitting on a bench in a beautiful park. I was awestruck when I suddenly realized some of the photographs I was holding were more than 80 years old.
Then there were several pictures of Ed with me from the 1980s and 90s. There were also photos of him with a whole variety of people I didn't know. I guessed they were different Romanian friends and relatives. Probably some previous lovers, too.
He was drawn to the photos just as much as he was to the cards, studying each with interest. The last one was a picture of him from 1985 with a woman standing behind him. She had her hands on his shoulders and her head was peeking around his, facing the camera.
"Ah . . . She loved me," he murmured, an affectionate expression on his face. He appeared mesmerized and kept looking at the photo in silence.
I was stunned. He didn't realize that I was the woman in the photo, but he remembered vividly that the woman in the picture had loved him. He remembered and experienced the affect.
"What are you thinking?" I asked when he didn't say anything more.
"I'm thinking of love," he said softly.
"I'm that woman and I still love you."
He looked up and gazed into my eyes exactly the way he did when we were lovers all those 30 years earlier.
It was surreal. I couldn't tell if he was in the past or the present.
I decided it didn't matter.
For more stories about Ed you can read my book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy, and visit my website, which contains extensive advice for caregivers. A slightly different version of this article appeared on the Alzheimer's Reading Room.