Finding a ‘Bridge’ with Alzheimer’s

The last column I wrote, “Alzheimer’s Long Goodbye” elicited the most responses to any of my columns ever. I received over forty e-mails. Many who were struggling with their own long goodbyes wrote that it made them cry. Some forwarded it to those they knew were caregivers dealing with their personal long goodbyes.

But besides Patti Davis’s book “The Long Goodbye” on her dad President Reagan, there is another book on Alzheimer’s by Lisa Genova. Its title is “Still Alice,” a New York Times Best Seller. It’s been translated into 25 languages. It is a novel, but a novel by a neuroscientist who knows well of what she writes. Theresa Hupp called it “a haunting book.” Hollywood is making a movie of it to be released next year.

In the movie, Julianne Moore plays the lead role of Alice Howland, a Harvard professor who has early onset Alzheimer’s. Alice’s husband and children, each in their own way, struggle with her decline. At some deep hidden level Alice is aware of this – hence the title of the book.

After my last column, a friend of my wife and mine sent me a note telling of a dream she had about my wife Marie. “I read your column over a couple of times,” she wrote, “it was touching and loving. I thought about Marie so much that last night I had a dream about her. I saw her so clearly, and she looked so pretty and had a beautiful smile on her face. In the dream we were waiting for our exercise class to start. When she came in, we were all so happy to see her and everyone was hugging her, telling her how much we missed her. All she said was, ‘What do we need today, I haven’t been here in such a long time?'”

At some deep, veiled level my wife is still here; there is not a complete loss of self. At that level she is still Marie. She is still energetic, cheerful and affectionate.

“There is a Bridge” is a TV documentary focusing on the importance of continued communication with people with Alzheimer’s. Its message is that meaningful connections are possible. The essence of a person remains.

This may seem senseless to many, but Memory Bridge, the foundation that produced this documentary, is telling us something comforting and profound: that Alzheimer’s does not completely rob identity. They ask these questions. Does it make it harder for the person to function? Yes. Can it create difficult behavior? Yes. Does it make it tougher to communicate? Absolutely. But does it make the person disappear? No. Does it make the person less human? No. And does it make communication impossible? No.

Why? Because no matter how severe someone’s Alzheimer’s, there is still a bridge. It could be verbal, or it might be touch. Perhaps it’s music that creates that bridge. Sometimes, it’s simply being present with someone in gentle silence.

As I feed Marie, I respond to her gibberish with, “I love you too.” Sometimes she says, “Good” or “Me too.” Sometimes when she hears others laugh, she laughs like her old self. Sometimes I touch her face or sing softly, “You are my Sunshine.”

I sense her response. She is still Marie.

Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O’Rourke lives in Cassadaga. His columns once appeared regularly in OBSERVER. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His book, “The Living Spirit” is a collection of his previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website