Published in the Coastline Pilot:
(Laguna Beach, CA)-Clyde is a former quality control engineer for Boeing. When he began attending Alzheimer’s Family Services Center, he regularly participated in art class, creating wonderful pencil sketches; once painting a beautiful seascape. As his dementia progressed, he stopped joining art class, becoming more and more isolated. Thanks to Laura and Louis M. Rohl, Clyde and many other participants at AFSC were treated to an outing including, lunch and a tour of the Laguna Art Museum exhibition of William Wendt.
“William Wendt saw God in nature,” explained the concierge to the group. “He must, look at that there,” said Clyde, pointing to a hardly noticeable mountain made to appear far off in the distance. Not quite able to find the words to describe what he saw, Clyde was unfazed by the entanglements affecting the language area of the brain commonly attacked by dementia. Deeply drawn in-to Wendt’s famous piece, Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought, Clyde took his eyes from the painting only momentarily to let the concierge know he was listening to her explanation of Wendt’s dedication to the idea of nature as creation. Clyde was more engaged than he had been in a very long time. Given Clyde’s lifelong interests in art, nature and gardening, the moment was nothing short of serendipitous.
As the tour went on, Clyde mentioned several times that he used to paint and draw. When asked if he was feeling inspired to pick up the pencil or paintbrush again, he replied with an enthusiastic “you betcha!”
Meanwhile, a small group of women admired another of Wendt’s paintings, Wash Day, depicting a small, early 20th century cabin and barn in a plush Southern California valley. A laundry line is tied between two trees with several garments hung. “Oh, I remember doing that…” said Ester. The others nodded, as if confirming that they, too, recall their days of washing and hanging laundry. According to Cordula Dick-Muehlke, PhD, executive director at Alzheimer’s Family Services Center, “Amazingly, color, motion, and imagery stimulate memories of past experiences that many of us might assume are forever lost to Alzheimer’s.”
Not long after the excursion, Clyde was walking by an Activity Coordinator who was working on a puzzle at Alzheimer’s Family Services Center. As always, she encouraged him to help her. For the first time in many months, he agreed and sat down and helped. It is difficult to tell if his renewed willingness to participate is directly attributable to the art museum excursion, but something inside him was definitely drawn out that day.
Beyond Mind and Body: Recognizing the Spirit in Caregiving
Note: This was a fun piece to write. One of the more difficult aspects of working in the realm of Alzheimer’s disease is seeing the disconnect between a family and sufferer. The gist of this article is that we, as humans, are not only more than just flesh, but more than cognition as well. It’s a difficult concept to grasp. When the brain is damaged, it seems as though the person we once knew is no longer there. By recognizing that the person we knew and loved is still inside that body in spirit, we can still connect with that person.
“I think, therefore I am.” The 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes probably did not intend to spark a “being vs. thinking” debate when he coined what became his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum. Whether Descartes meant to imply that personhood is comprised of cognition or not, one might intuitively rely on communication skills, memory ability and rational thought to gain insight to another’s individuality. When cognitive forms of communication and understanding are no longer an option, David Hart, MS, MFI, Director of Education at Alzheimer’s Family Services Center states, “We can shift to the components of spirituality: love, empathy and compassion.”
To most people of faith, what makes us who we are, our being, goes beyond cognition—the mere firing of electrical impulses between neurons. It is the damaging or death of these thought-enabling brain cells that brings about the aspects of dementia that seemingly challenge a cognitively-impaired individual’s personhood: memory, judgment, language, complex motor skills and other intellectual functions. Christine Bryden, an Australian Anglican who has Alzheimer’s disease, speaking at a conference, put the being vs. thinking conflict into powerful prose:
“As I lose an identity in the world around me, which is so anxious to define me by what I do and say, rather than who I am, I can seek an identity by simply being me, a person created in the image of God. My spiritual self is reflected in the divine and given meaning as a transcendent being.”
Learning to address a person with dementia’s spiritual capacity can help a caregiver support and care for that individual. In an essay titled Spirituality, Religion, and Alzheimer’s Disease, Stephen G. Post, PhD and Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, PhD suggest that a person with dementia might have a higher capacity for spirituality, stating that “as the capacity for technical rationality fades, more contemplative and spiritual capacities are elevated.”
Recognizing the spirit can also help caregivers. Cordula Dick-Muehlke, Ph.D., AFSC Executive Director, identifies four key ways spirituality can enhance caregiver coping:
1. Serves as a source of support and comfort (e.g., via prayer) in challenging caregiving situations.
2. Provides an avenue for forgiveness of the individual with dementia when care is difficult and of oneself for negative emotions such as anger.
3. Provides meaning and hope in the context of suffering.
4. Offers a social community through which to stay connected with others.
Perhaps, had a certain 17th-century philosopher given more consideration to what comprises personhood beyond mind and body, a certain famous dictum might go something more like, I am spirit; therefore I am.
Click here to view a print newsletter I authored/edited for Alzheimer’s Family Services Center.
Press release for an Alzheimer’s disease conference:
Alzheimer’s Conference: Risk Factors and Commonalities with Other Age-Related Diseases
For Immediate Release
October 23-24 at the Irvine Hilton
(Irvine, CA) – Alzheimer’s disease experts will gather on October 23 and 24 at the Irvine Hilton to explore the relationship between dementia and other age-related conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Now known to effect the onset, course, and even development of dementia, such conditions may represent the key to effective treatments and ways to reduce risk for cognitive impairment. Nationally renowned speakers will provide cutting-edge information about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias to family caregivers, professionals, and the community at the 2008 Regional Alzheimer’s Disease Research Conference hosted by the UC Irvine Institute for Brain Aging & Dementia, Alzheimer’s Family Services Center and the Orange County Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“This year’s conference will demonstrate the interconnectedness of diseases along with how strategies effective for one condition will have overall benefits on brain health and vitality as well as reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” according to Carl Cotman, Ph.D., Director of the UCI Institute for Brain Aging & Dementia.
Medical conditions can also affect persons with dementia in a variety of ways on a day-to-day basis. “Oftentimes, when confusion or behaviors worsen, pain, infection, or other medical concerns may be the cause, but are overlooked,” noted Cordula Dick-Muehlke, Ph.D., Executive Director at Alzheimer’s Family Services Center.
At the conference, experts will explore the impact of medical conditions and their treatment, including hospitalization, on people with Alzheimer’s. As well, a panel of individuals with early Alzheimer’s disease and their care partners will bring to life the day-to-day impact of coping with cognitive impairment.
The Alzheimer’s Association Orange County Chapter has been privileged to serve the 66,000 people in Orange County affected with this disease for more than 25 years,” said Jim McAleer, Executive Director.
The Alzheimer’s Association is proud to serve Orange County and partner with the UC Irvine Institute for Brain Aging & Dementia and Alzheimer’s Family Services Center to provide the 2008 Regional Alzheimer’s Disease Research Conference.”
For more information on this year’s conference, Alzheimer’s Disease 2008: Risk Factors and Commonalities with Other Age-Related Diseases, or to register, please call the Alzheimer’s Association at (949)757-3703 or visit http://www.alzoc.org. Complementary respite will be provided for family caregivers at various Orange County assisted living facilities.