It is 2004. Carl is distraught after the morning chant at the meditation center. His head is hanging. “Carl, what’s wrong?”, I ask.
“I’m gonna die,” he responds.
“Carl, we’re all going to die. What’s going on?”
Carl stammers, “I have Alzheimer’s.”
“Let’s go for a walk,” I suggest.
Carl and I walk and talk. After losing his job as a psychologist 4 years earlier, he finally has a diagnosis. I offer my help, he accepts. “Carl, After thirty years of meditation practice and trying to get your mind to be quiet and go away, now it’s finally going.” I am only half joking. Carl is sixty years old and has no family and no money. He is scared. “Carl, you have given your life in service to others. I am here for you,” I promise him.
As the next six years pass I learn many lessons about disability insurance, elder law, assisted living, and what people care about. But it is Carl’s eyes that teach me the most profound lessons. As operating a washing machine becomes too complex, we discover the joy of meeting with the owner of the laundry service twice weekly. Carl laughs at this man’s broad Philippine smile and the proprietor laughs at how many pairs of socks and underwear Carl brings in, many only having been taken out of last weeks cleaning and thrown on the floor because of a wrinkle Carl did not like.
As Carl’s speech becomes more simple, I learn of his love of music and with him I attend dozens of concerts, until the stairs and crowds become unworkable. Every time an ability recedes I look to find what life is offering that is workable and enjoyable. Life is always offering adventure and joy. We can always find them when we look for them.
Carl teaches me that the power of raising an eyebrow and sporting a half-cocked grin is more precise communication than any lengthy explanation… as long as I’m paying attention.
Carl reveals, by example, what ancient sages tell us: when we are living in the present moment, we find peace. This is perhaps the biggest lesson. As Carl’s Alzheimer’s advances, his experience of life shifts more easily with his internal state and external stimuli. Some senses are magnified and others are filtered. The means to communicate with him is to become completely present to his world, enter it, and experience what is of greatest importance to him in that moment. This is attending to his needs, recognizing his humanity, becoming his companion again and again, and creating the space for his love, appreciation, and other offerings to express.
When we practice this with our elders, we can bring that skill to our neighbors and when we can do this with our neighbors, we have more access to interacting with other cultures and nations in this way. This is an access to peace. Peace begins with you.
David Lazaroff is author of Live It Up! 10 Ways to Share Joy When Your Friend Has Alzheimer’s. David coaches family and friends of people with Alzheimer’s Disease in creating a fun and joyful life. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
David is the founder of Holistic Community Living, a Colorado nonprofit founded to operate and teach others to operate neighborhood-based assisted living homes where people can complete their lives with those they love.