Sunday, March 22, 2015

Someone's Still in There: Krista Tippett Discusses Alzheimer's

Often, Krista Tippett's radio program On Being offers thoughtful, generous guests whose ideas bloom in answer to her curiosity.  Today, the show featured clinical psychologist Alan Dienstag, who works with Alzheimer's;  As that disease has touched my family, I listened on headphones at the grocery store, pausing in the cereal aisle to cry a little.

Tippett's show used to be known as Speaking of Faith, and she asked this guest to opine on what his Jewish tradition has to say about Alzheimer's.   "God forgets, too," he said.  God isn't just the creator of awesome things, but must be in the pain, too.  In other answers, the doctor suggests that Alzheimer's gives us a concentrated vision of what we are all experiencing, i.e., being like a picture that's fading.  He's moved by the sight of his patients in writing groups, trying to set down who they are while they still can do so.

He offered some comforts.

Even in a late stage, a caregiver will recognize humor or sadness, "dispatches" from the person inside.  Sometimes, there's wisdom: the woman who struggled to answer why she loved the beach, before saying, "There's a kind of music always there." A wife was distraught that her husband couldn't say who she was, until one day he said, "I don't know who you are; but I love you," just what she needed to hear.

Memory, we now know, isn't brought up from a well, but pieced together from many different parts of the brain, a creative process.

When Krista Tippett asked the doctor how he'd feel getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer's now, he said he'd feel grief and loss, but not fear. For one thing, he explained, the Alzheimer patient isn't aware of the condition, and he told of a husband who told a support group,"I forget things sometimes, but I get by just fine," while his wife cried silently behind him. 

Tippett ended the program with a reading from a collection of poems that arose from the poet's workshop experiences with Alzheimer's patients.  The collection is Oblivio Gate by Sean Nevin.

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