When the memories fade from the mind of a loved one, it is a dismal situation to witness and experience. The initial glimmers of the destructive path to the brain's once vibrant mechanism bring about a sense of great loss and agony for all involved. The individual who has been affected by the illness feels the weight of this internal turmoil most of all. The emotional pain suffered in knowing that a beloved family member is slipping away is quite distressing. Not only from a psychological perspective, but in the physical and spiritual senses, as well.
When my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, there really wasn't much known about the disease. The behavioral patterns were evident, but in that time little research had been conducted to better understand the devastating effects of those stricken, let alone the availability of any medication. Even my grandmother's physicians tip-toed around the subject, as did most family members. When my grandmother began to behave in an unfamiliar manner, the family would just smile and whisper about her suffering from an ailment known as "old-timers."
As the disease took hold and her mind became convoluted -- as did any thought she voiced -- our family watched the disease destroy her body and spirit. Over a period of eight long years, our family observed her transform from a once robust woman into an emaciated and bed-ridden patient who had no memory of anyone including her only daughter, my mom. This metamorphosis caused such suffering for Mom and tore at the very fabric of our family life. In the last years of my grandmother's life, she had no control over any of her faculties. And when she died, Mom felt as if the years had only left her with sad memories.
In recent months, another beloved member of our family has been afflicted with early stage dementia. Although it is hurtful to watch my aunt begin to decline, it has also brought some joyful moments into our lives. Between the repeated conversations and snippets of the present days come the stories of the past and her youth. Mixed in with those reminiscent moments are tales of her childhood, including accounts of my dad and grandfather. These narratives are ones I've never heard before and depict a look into the early life that she shared with two of her favorite men. My grandfather had passed away a few years before I was born, so I never had the privilege of meeting him or spending time in his presence. But in listening to the stories of a time gone by, I feel as if I have caught a glimpse of some tender moments in all of their lives. These fragments of my aunt's memory have provided a chance to share in the impressions sustained inside her heart. And have warmed the cockles of mine.
As her mind travels down memory lane, she smiles in remembering her best-loved people, places and things. She recalls the youthful pranks of siblings, days spent in the kitchen preparing holiday meals and the loving manner of a kind and caring father. In those moments of recollection, it appears as if her very being becomes illuminated and the damaging nature of the disorder loses its hold on her mind. In some ways, it has brought a familial gift of sorts. In the intermittent moments of memories captured from the past, a heartfelt sentiment is recalled. And the joy once felt is again displayed and shared by all.
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