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Forget me not: When a parent has Alzheimer’s disease

By Jeff Swaim

It was 8:30 p.m. when the phone rang. My mother was frantic. “Jeff, please come over here. There are people in my house and they won’t leave.” I grabbed my coat and told my wife, Kathy, that I was racing over to Mom’s house.

As I entered the house, Mom was crying. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“There are people in the other room and they won’t leave,” she replied.

“Where are they?” I asked.

Mom led me into the back bedroom.

“Where are they?” I repeated.

“Right there,” she said, pointing to her old clothes hanging in the closet.

In disbelief, I reached out my arms and held her close to me. “Mom, it’s going to be OK,” I said, tears streaming down my face. My heroic and brilliant mother was living out a nightmare, having hallucinations brought on by a disease called Alzheimer’s.

Even though Mom had been manifesting symptoms of Alzheimer’s for years, which forced her to retire from teaching at Central Bible College after 28 years, I was not prepared for the cruel things my mom would experience. Her memories, her dignity and her ability to distinguish reality were stolen from her.

Aging and death are inevitable. My father, for example, died suddenly on his 45th birthday. But, in some ways, it’s more difficult to watch life eke out of a parent or grandparent. The days and months of bereavement and mourning can be stretched into years as we say a long goodbye to a parent. So, how does one press on when you find it difficult to look into the lifeless eyes of a dying or suffering parent?

The Bible gives us a wonderful foundation on which to stand when we face the inevitability of our parents’ aging. It’s found in a simple command: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12, NIV). The Lord is not merely speaking to rebellious teenagers in these verses. He is speaking to children of all ages. There are some principles we must commit to in order to give genuine honor to our parents.

We must have an unchallenged respect for our parents. Sometime this respect is challenged because we resent how we were raised — perhaps in a dysfunctional home where love and tenderness were absent. I was fortunate to have a mother who continuously showed her love for God and her family. But others aren’t as fortunate. They have to seek God’s help in forgiving their parents. When we restore complete relationship, we will truly honor the Lord in His commandment of honoring our parents.

We must demonstrate an unconditional love to our parents. No matter how difficult the situation, our parents are still our parents. One person tried to comfort me by saying, “Jeff, just remember, that’s not your mom.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied, “every bit of her. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, I am bound with more than a vow. I’m commanded to honor her; she’s still my mom.”

We must understand the process of aging. Read books or search the Internet for information that will help you understand what your parent is going through with his or her ailment or declining health. I studied all I could on the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and it helped prepare me for what was ahead. It also enabled me to pray more specifically.

We must work to do what’s best for them. From the onset of Mom’s Alzheimer’s there were signals that things were not normal. She would often repeat stories, her hair was not as neat, and she had trouble matching her clothes. Her inability to remember compromised her effectiveness to teach in the classroom and even to play the piano at church. I knew there was a problem when I heard her make a mistake on the piano; I had seldom heard her play a wrong note. She was a concert pianist, who could sight-read and transpose anything. And she had perfect pitch. She could also orchestrate pieces in her head. Her peers called her a musical genius. But, piece by piece, Mom’s ministry and everyday life were evaporating with her diminishing cognitive ability. She had to give up teaching, writing and recording music, playing the piano at church, and, eventually, driving her car. She was a prisoner.

Kathy and I tried our best to care for Mom while she lived in her own home. Kathy was constantly at Mom’s house — three to four times per day. We attempted to help her eat right and take her medications. She came to our house several times a week for “grandma time.” But the hallucinations became more frequent, which caused her to be up all hours of the day and night. Exhausted, she would fall asleep on the floor or just sitting in the corner. Finally we decided to put her in a nursing home. That was one of the most difficult decisions we ever made, but shortly thereafter we knew we had done the right thing. She was better off receiving constant care.

We must build unforgettable memories with our family. My wife and two girls played an amazing role in helping me through the valley of Alzheimer’s. My wife demonstrated unconditional love day after day, visiting Mom and caring for her. When Mom received an award from the Music Hall of Honor, my daughters received the award on her behalf. It was a proud, unforgettable moment for Stephanie and Lyndsey.

During the last two years of Mom’s life the only name we heard her say was “Jesus.” Mom died on July 3, 2002. She had suffered with Alzheimer’s for more than 13 years. That evening one of her close friends of 35 years called and left a message on our answering machine to comfort us. She said, “I’m praying for you and your family, but I’m rejoicing with Winnie. She’s out of her prison and home with Jesus.” I played the message again and again and my smile grew wider and wider. Yes! Mom was indeed out of her prison. She was home with the Lord.

Since her death, I’ve often relied on Paul’s prayer in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. I’m confident it will encourage you as well as you deal with the issue of aging parents: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”

Jeff Swaim is director of the WorldHope project for Convoy of Hope in Springfield, Mo.

From Trusting God, compiled and edited by George O. Wood, Hal Donaldson and Ken Horn (Springfield, Mo.: Onward Books, Inc., 2003). Reprinted with permission.

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