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How to love a spouse with Alzheimer’s

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Updated Oct. 23, 2018: This article has been updated in the wake of Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s announcement today that she has “beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease.” She is the latest of about 5.7 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s daily. Buckner Retirement Services offers memory care in all of its senior living communities throughout Texas. Dorothy Horne is a Longview, Texas, author and contributing columnist and blogger for the Longview News-Journal. Her husband, Byron, lives with Alzheimer’s disease and is a resident at Buckner Westminster Place’s The Harbor. // Byron has now been in memory care at Buckner Westminster Place for eight months. I’m thankful for the gift of community God has given Byron at Buckner, and I’m grateful he’s in such a caring and loving environment. I have come to know the staff well, and they are amazing. I love watching them interact with and care for the residents with such patience and love. Theirs is not a job, but a ministry of serving. There is such tenderness and beauty in Byron’s community. If you want to see what unconditional love looks like—a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things—then visit Buckner memory care. You’ll find husbands, wives and family members who come on a regular basis to be with their loved ones. They may or may not be able to converse much, depending on the stage of the disease. That doesn’t matter, though, because their communication and love is expressed through simply being present, not necessarily through words. Being present with someone is saying, “You matter to me and I love you unconditionally.” Just sitting together, holding hands—being instead of doing. When I’m present with Byron, he’s content and so am I. At this point in our journey, much has been stripped away. We’re down to the marrow. What’s left, though, is life’s essence: unconditional love. And when the inner light of love shines from Byron’s eyes when he looks at me, it’s pure gold. Whether our loved ones with Alzheimer’s (or other long-term diseases) are in a memory care community or at home, there are many ways we can continue loving them well.  What better way to do this than by being present and creating moments of joy? It’s not in our power to give our loved ones a great day, but it is in our power to give them happy, joy-filled moments. They won’t remember these, but the contentment and good feelings you’ve helped them experience will linger. So, when it comes to loving a spouse through Alzheimer’s or dementia, think “moments” and simplicity. Think about what brings delight or comfort. The simplest activities can bring the most satisfaction. I’ve learned to look for what brings a smile and sparkle to Byron’s eyes, and that’s what we do. It varies from day to day, depending on his energy level or state of confusion. It may be listening to music, playing his guitar, going for walks over by the Buckner lake, looking for rainbows in the fountains, dancing (we’ve always loved to dance) or playing catch. Think about what the two of you have always loved to do, then modify and adjust the activity and keep doing it! For practical ways to love your spouse despite their disease, try these ideas:

  • Hug and hold hands often. Tell them how special they are, and why. Remind them of the great things they were known for. Remind them how they’ve made a difference to you, your family and friends. Think about the ways your loved one used to show you love, then do those things for them. Touch, feel and talk about their treasured possessions.
  • Give them a back rub.
  • Comb their hair.
  • Rub scented lotion on their hands.
  • Read and sing to them.
  • Read Scripture and pray with them. Remind them how much God loves them and how he is taking care of them.
  • Look at photo albums together. Talk to them about your shared experiences. Tell them “their story” often. It hands them back their life and memories, even if just momentarily.
  • Go out for ice cream.
  • Talk about all the things you are thankful for. Make a list and read it together often.

Thanks be to God for the gift of His miraculous grace that turns water into wine in the magnified, joy-infused moments He gives us each day! “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ” –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18