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‘The Notebook’ hits home as families struggle with Alzheimer’s disease

One night last summer Joyce and I decided that we would take a break and see The Notebook, a movie that had been frequently recommended. The first few minutes had some scenes that made us wonder if our friends had steered us wrong. But as the story progressed, it was dealing with one of the great concerns to our aging population, Alzheimer’s.

The notebook, whichprovided the title of the movie, told the story of a love affair that had goneawry and then had been salvaged just as the girl was about to marry another manwho offered her wealth and position. The movie takes place when the couple isolder: they live in a care facility — she has Alzheimer’s and he has a badheart. The early stage of their passionate love is revealed as he reads thestory to her from the notebook and the film flashes back in time.

The film shows manystruggles of Alzheimer’s disease: she is passive, she is hostile, she sometimesresists all help, and she does not recognize her children and, sometimes, noteven her husband. When her husband reads the story from the notebook, shesometimes remembers him and their love.
The film was powerfulbecause it presented the pain of a disease that blights many families. I hadnever heard of the disease in the late 1970s when Joyce’s uncle was diagnosed.Willie was a gentle man who loved music, the Bible and a good joke. He was amodel husband and father. In a matter of time he was running away from home andthreatening bodily injury to his wife. Joyce’s father lived about 50 milesaway, but he would drive to help his brother several times every week. Williestayed at home until death released him from the darkness of his life.
Because forgetfulnessand dementia are common among older people, many families refuse to considerthat parents, grandparents or aging relatives may be in the early stages ofAlzheimer’s. Early detection and proper medication can slow the effects of thedisorder. It is wise to encourage older family members to be tested whenforgetfulness occurs frequently.
We all accept thefact that someday our parents, siblings, perhaps even a child or a spouse willdie. But the prospect of a living death as a loved one progresses through thestages of Alzheimer’s is a challenge for those with the greatest faith. Afamily member who saw the effects of Alzheimer’s on family described it asemotionally and financially devastating to all.
Faith may cushion theeffects on families dealing with a victim of this disease, but pain andconfusion are inevitable. The greatest pain for loved ones occurs when they areno longer recognized by the sufferer. Family members have observed, “Deathcomes only once, but Alzheimer’s takes your mother away a thousand times.”
One of theinteresting aspects of Alzheimer’s effect is the inconsistency of memory. Myaunt did not know me or her children, but she could still sing most of herfavorite hymns and she could quote Scriptures. She once told my mother a storyabout their early childhood, but she had no idea who my mother was.
Alzheimer’s isunpredictable. Joyce’s uncle lived on three years, but others live up to 15years. That fact makes life for the victim and family indescribably painful.The changes in personality are also confusing and frustrating to familymembers. When a gentle giant becomes aggressive and brutal, an elderly wifedoes not know what to do.
In most families, thespouse is convinced that taking care of an Alzheimer mate is a duty, not anoption. But that is rarely possible, and then the spouse has to deal with griefand guilt. Most husbands face reality more quickly as they see the needs of awife. Wives find it almost impossible to decide that they can’t mange thesituation, and children and friends must help make decisions to place thehusband/father in a care facility.
Families dealing withAlzheimer’s need love and support. The caregivers must have rest, time away andcounsel from loved ones. Churches should develop information about resourcesand care facilities. They should also provide support for the caregivers:people who pray together with families, people who spend time relieving thecaregiver who needs time to rest and care for business and chores. Closefriends can be helpful during the early stages when the caregiver is in denial.
Recently I attendedthe funeral of a woman who had endured 11 years. Her husband cared for her athome as long as he could, and his daughters helped him decide that a carefacility was a necessity. He moved to an apartment that provided meals andother services so that he could visit his wife every day. A daughter who hadlived away moved with her family back to assist her sisters and father. Thisterrible disease actually brought all the family closer together as they facedchallenges. Like the father in Mark 9, they believed, but they asked theirFather to help them overcome unbelief.

April 1, 2006

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