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Slacks in the freezer

Gather cover Octoberby Sue Gamelin

I’ll never forget Otto.

I was his pastor in the 1980s. He probably had Alzheimer’s disease, although that title can be given to a disease only after death, when the brain can be exam­ined for the tell tale signs of Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles. Otto had always been—and continued to be—charming.

This meant that I developed a wonder­ful catalogue of “Otto stories.” There was the time his son-in-law found Otto’s slacks in the freezer, news which Otto happily greeted with, “I wondered where they were!”

And then there was the time I visited him in the hospital. The think­ing in the 1980s was that family and friends were supposed to correct people with dementia when they said something that we knew to be false or distorted. So when Otto, who was close to 90, told me that his mother was ill, I replied gently, “I am so sorry, but I happen to know that your mother has passed away.” This news didn’t faze him. “Then you know how sick she is,” he exclaimed.

These days “reality testing” is not regarded as helpful for people with dementia. My mom was moved last spring from assisted living in Florida to a memory care unit in Minnesota. When she thinks she still lives in Florida, we are glad to let her “stay there.” It seems to help her feel comfortable when so many other things have changed. Mom doesn’t have the symptoms of Alzheimer’s dis­ease. At age 96, she not only recognizes my sister and me, but she can call extended family members by name, knows who the president is and is aware that it’s 2016.

Does she remember on Monday her gala birthday party on Sunday? No. She has memory loss (both short and long term) and can no longer read books she has loved all her life. “I just can’t figure out what’s going on,” she mourns.

Then there’s me. I’m 73. I spend more and more time in the “sweet here­after.” That’s what a friend calls it when we find ourselves standing in the laundry room, wondering what we’re here after.

Can I always remember what happened in the novel I finished last week? Not so much. Among us folks in our 70s there is a lot of discussion about our memory loss. We talk about the great search to find a name we want to recall, whether it be the name of the person who was our best friend in high school, the national park we visited last year or the author whose books we enjoy.

There is a continuum of brain distur­bances, from slacks in the freezer to trips to the grocery store to buy three things and forgetting what two of them were. “Dementia” is something more serious than “senior moments.” It is a variety of diseases that affect social interac­tions, memory and the ability to process information to such an extent that these symptoms interfere with daily living. Dementia is caused by damage to the cells in various parts of our brains, damage that progresses and isn’t reversible.

You can learn more about dementia and its several forms by consulting both the Mayo Clinic and the Alzheimer’s Association web sites. If you are concerned about yourself or someone you love, talk with your primary care physi­cian and your pastor. Support groups can be extraordinarily helpful.

Dementia is a scary reality. I experienced families coming to me, their pastor, to whisper that Mom or Dad had been diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease. “But we don’t want Mom to know—or anybody else, for that mat­ter,” they would quickly add. There often seems to be shame attached to a dementia diagnosis. Something is fun­damentally wrong with Dad or Mom; something about their character has changed, we might think.

But dementia is a disease, not a disgrace, with a variety of manifestations, causes often unknown and treatments that are marginally effec­tive. Can it seem like an enemy for both the patient and the family? Can it be lonely, chaotic and sad? Does it require patience, courage and steadfast love? Oh, yes. The psalms offer support as they spell out the horror of enemies like dementia that threaten us; they remind us that God is always there for us.

Psalm 138:7 is a comfort: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.”

The Rev. Sue Gamelin is a retired ELCA pastor in Washington state. She and her husband, Tim, have four grown children and their spouses and 11 grandchildren.

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