Working with people who have memory loss, we try to create meaningful moments, fleeting times of connection in order to stay in relationship with the person who is living with Alzheimer’s. We know that our work cannot bring the person back to the way they were before Alzheimer’s, we know that these connections may come and go in a flash, we know that these moments of connection cannot change the condition of the person living with Alzheimer’s, nor can these fleeting moments change the pain and loneliness of the people who love them. So, why even bother? Why rack our brains for ideas, why try and create these meaningful experiences? If it all comes down to just a couple of minutes of recognition or a moment of connection, is it worth the work, the effort?
To answer that question, we have to take a look at our own lives. When you think about it, all of us live our lives in fleeting moments; we nod and smile at someone at work, we give a quick kiss to the people we love, we catch a glimpse of a beautiful sunset, we hear a much loved song on the radio. Our own lives are lived moment by moment. Our own memories are fleeting as well. We remember snatches of conversation, a scene from the past, a familiar gesture, the taste of a favorite food. We, whose memory and mind may still be strong, are able to hold long conversations, sit through a two hour movie, or read an entire book. What do we, with our intact memory systems, remember from these events? If we are lucky, we remember the thread of a conversation, a few scenes from the movie, and the theme of the book. We are all of us, those who live with Alzheimer’s, and those of us who do not yet live with Alzheimer’s, all of us live our lives moment by moment. When we try to connect to those of us who have Alzheimer’s, we are doing something that is not so very different from the way we live our own lives every day. We just need to be more conscious of the immediacy and the momentary nature of life when we reach out to people living with Alzheimer’s. Living in the moment is not a bad way to approach life. This moment is, after all, the only time we have. With our intact memory systems and our highly functioning cognitive abilities, we tend to race from one event to the next. People living with Alzheimer’s teach us the importance of slowing down; they teach us the essential lesson that there is only this moment in time.
We had this lesson brought home to us on a warm summer afternoon as we sat under the umbrellas of a sidewalk restaurant watching the world stroll by. Next to our table was a young family, mom and dad and two little boys. While the boys enjoyed their handmade ice cream cones, we couldn’t help but notice that both of their parents were completely immersed in their hand held devices. Both parents were turned away from their children, and turned away from each other, staring fixedly at the small screens in their hands. This moment: the lovely summer sky, the colorful people walking by, the yellow and green umbrellas of the restaurant, the flower boxes in full bloom on the sidewalk railings, the ice cream, and the little boys’ enraptured faces, were all lost to the two people staring into their hands.
We live in a marvelous age of great leaps in technology, almost a renaissance period of change and growth. But if we surrender moments of engagement, moments of relationship to this technology, we will begin to lose pieces of our lives. These moments are usually just ordinary things, a family dinner, a run by the lake, a child in our arms. But these are the moments that matter; these are the moments that make up our lives.
When we were parents of young children, it was hard to make the time (even five minutes) to just talk to our children one on one and to really, really listen. But those five minutes, those quiet talks, those little moments are how we build and grow relationships, memories, our lives. People living with Alzheimer’s teach us to pay attention; look at the faces of the people you love, listen to the music of your life, feel the wind on your face, taste the ice cream. These moments are the jewels of our lives strung on the necklace of time.