Bob, a gentleman I've known only through correspondence as he's a faithful reader of my newspaper column and blog, invited me to visit and meet his wife, Jane. Jane has Alzheimer's disease, probably stage five, on the seven stage scale. They live near me so we thought this Christmas season was a good time to get together.
I had a pretty good idea of what Bob would be like. He's an 81-year-old retired professor, very active and savvy. From what I'd learned from Bob, his wife has been a bright, dynamic woman and they have had a wonderful marriage. They also have a great relationship with their kids. Before Alzheimer's became evident, they traveled a great deal and had the life many retirees dream of.
Bob met me at the secure door of their condominium building and energetically showed me all the amenities that their common areas offer. Then he took me to meet Jane and see their condo. The first thing Bob did was unlock the door from the outside. He's installed a lock near the top of the door - high enough so Jane won't notice why the door won't open. It keeps her safe from wondering. Bob locks the door with a key, from the outside, even if he goes down to get the mail.
Bob and I walked into the apartment and he called out to Jane so she knew we were coming. The woman sitting in the wonderfully decorated livingroom surprised me. She was neatly dressed, as I'd expected. However when I walked up to her and took her hand, apologizing for it being cold from my snowy drive, she looked me in the eye. She clearly and bluntly agreed with me when I said my hand was cold, but her comment contained obvious wit.
Bob showed me the wonders of their home - treasures collected during their extensive travels, as well as antiques. We chatted about Europe a great deal, swapping stories about places I'd visited decades ago. Then we sat with Jane.
Bob and I chatted, but we included Jane as much as she seemed to want to be included. I complimented her on her lovely home and she seemed pleased. She mentioned being hot and Bob adjusted things accordingly, never missing a beat in our chat. Jane had taught at a nursing school, so when Bob was telling me about things she had done, I noted these events and tried to include her. It thought it would be hard to communicate with her, given her fairly advanced stage, but aside from the expected sadness that this wonderful couple must cope with this disease, the visit flew by and was exceptionally enjoyable. My expectations about the difficulty thinking of things to say to Jane evaporated.
When I said she was probably tired of company - I had an appointment and needed to leave - she agreed, which made me smile. She may have lost her social inhibitions, but her wit was again evident. There was an impish twinkle in her eye as she answered me.
As I drove home, I thought of my dad. He didn't have Alzheimer's disease, but he had severe dementia as a result of brain surgery. So many people who had loved him "as he used to be," were afraid to visit him after his surgery. To be sure, the change in him was immediate and shocking, rather than gradual as is generally the case with Alzheimer's disease. But still, I wished more people would have understood how much a visit would have meant to him. He had loyal friends who did visit, but there were many who "just couldn't." I understood, but Dad didn't.
I wondered, as I drove, if I could have done more to encourage people to see Dad. Bob has been amazing, to be sure. He has some in-home help and a great deal of support so he can get out for some breaks. However, he has devoted his life to keep Jane as much a part of the world as possible. I did my best with Dad, and all the other elders who depended on me, but I couldn't avoid a little self-imposed guilt.
Meeting Bob and Jane expanded my vision and reminded me once again to never assume anything before I meet a person, with or without a disease. Of course, I will fail. I will continue to have preconceived ideas, but I will try to keep Jane in mind the next time I meet someone new. She changed my vision of how a person in the later stages of Alzheimer's can be.
Of course, like Dad, some of her days are better than others. But this visit showed me what love, devotion, education and determination can do. Jane's doctors are also amazed at how well she and Bob, together, do and I can see why.
Not everyone is put together like Bob. I would suggest that most people couldn't do what he has done - at least to the extent he has done it. However, I do believe his care for Jane has made all the difference in how well she continues to do with her disease. Meeting Bob and Jane was a wonderful Christmas gift to me and a reminder of how unique we all are. There couldn't have been a better time for me to witness the results of this labor of love. I smiled all the way home.
Published On: December 22, 2009