Areflection on one man’s descent into Alzheimer’s

Published on Thu, Feb 22, 2007 by ob Rieke

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A reflection on one man’s descent into Alzheimer’s

By Bob Rieke

Editor’s note: Bob Rieke has been a pastor for nearly 40 years and is currently the minister at Blaine's United Church of Christ Congregational at Fourth and Clark streets. His father was also a pastor all of his adult life.

Both men have often counseled families in dealing with a problem that they now face together with their families, that of old age dementia in one and the challenges that presents for the other. Here he shares his reflections.

Quietly, slowly, insidiously, Alzheimer’s enters a life and a family system.

My father knew about the fog nearly two years ago, he asked us to answer a question he could not answer for himself. “What is happening to me?”

At that point, father’s little red book … the one in which the tally of the baptisms, funerals, and weddings he had officiated at while pastor at Glendale Lutheran Church became both “gospel and identity” for him.

Increasingly uncertain of who he was, where he was, why he was, and what would be occurring on any given day, he would write everything down.

The first of his “dyings” then became that of flexibility. Clinging to transcribed reality, he would resist, question and occasionally express frustration at changes in plans.

The confusion and uncertainty deepened in late 2005 and early in 2006. We who loved father looked for innocuous words to describe what we could see happening.

We sanitized our speaking, “just getting older,” “a touch of dementia,” and our realities … “Dad can still play cards!” Ours was difficult “wrestling” with our need for identification and cure.

Perhaps modifying his or our behavior was all that was necessary? Perhaps there was a medicine that would fully restore father’s thinking? Why can’t our love change what is happening? The first of our dyings was to our denial. Father had a progressive, debilitating disease called Alzheimer’s.

The why of it all had nothing to do with us, and it certainly had nothing to do with anything this compassionate, kind man had done.
The power to physically heal was not ours. Rather our prayer became, “God give us all the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.”
In August 2006, father’s descent into Alzheimer’s was accelerated by a fall. The remainder of our year was a swirl of hospital and nursing homes.

Mother’s deep love and concern, and sadness became part of the equation.

She wrestled with her responsibility to, and her deep love for this man with whom she had shared 67 years of marriage. Her health was affected and was now also in the mix.

With conversations with father now simply recitations, his door of memory would occasionally open just a crack, but just as quickly it would slam shut. We grieved what had been, what was and what would be.

Ours was the reality of a changed and changing relationship with father. The second of our dyings was to control, for there is no action, no “easy” button, no pill that can reverse what is.

In our helplessness, though, we are blessed. The loving, gentle father we have known remains, unfailingly thankful for our visits loving us with simple words, smiles, hugs, and kisses.

His humble, thankful life is still a gift from God to those who care for him and to all who love him. For this we give thanks!