Love in Time of Alzheimer's

It's Valentine's Day. And it's a world gone crazy for romance -- red roses, chocolates, sentimental greeting cards, candlelit dinners and champagne.

But for many in the Alzheimer's community, Valentine's Day can bring with it a whirlwind of complicated and conflicting emotions ... joy, sadness, anger, nostalgia, fear, disappointment, frustration, loneliness and helplessness.

Love in time of Alzheimer's is not easy. The disease causes a profound sense of loss -- loss of the intimacy of a marital partner; loss of a mother's warm humor; loss of the companionship of a best friend; loss of grandfather's wisdom. While these bonds may endure through the earlier stages of the dementia, as the disease progresses, these ties grow looser and are eventually lost as well.

So, how do you love someone who no longer knows who you are -- who forgets who they are? Can love survive the throes of repeated paranoid delusions, when your loved one hurtfully accuses you of trying to harm them -- or of being out to get them? When the late stage of dementia has claimed the last flicker of light in their eyes and there's nothing more than an empty shell of a person, can you love more than the memory of who they once were?

It's hard, but love can survive dementia. It can even thrive. But your concept of love and what it once was, what it is, and what it will become must change. Love the person, not the disease. Accept your loved one -- dementia and all. Remember that who they are today is fleeting. Above all, preserve your memories, and work hard to make new ones.

I have never been a religious person, but in the difficult years when both my mother and father were living with dementia, I found solace and inspiration in one particular Bible passage: 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13. This letter from the Apostle Paul are words that every Alzheimer's caregiver can live by.

Love is patient ... love is kind ... it does not dishonor others ... it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs ... It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

St. Paul's sentiments on the enduring nature of love are also reflected in one of my favorite cinematic love stories. Released in 1981, at a time when no one was talking about dementia or Alzheimer's, On Golden Pond, explores the love of couple in the twilight years of a long marriage and the challenges it brings.

In a pivotal scene, 80-year-old Norman, a cantankerous old codger, played by Henry Fonda, confesses to wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) that he got lost while looking for strawberries in the woods that he has known for decades.

I think the Apostle would be pleased with Ethel's response.

Norman: You want to know why I came back so fast? I got to the end of our lane. I couldn't remember where the old town road was. I went a little ways in the woods. There was nothing familiar. Not one damn tree. Scared me half to death. That's why I came running back here to you. So I could see your pretty face and I could feel safe and that I was still me.

Ethel: You're safe, you old poop and you're definitely still you ... Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it. You're gonna get back up on that horse and I'm gonna be right behind you holding on tight ...

Love in time of Alzheimer's does not have to end.