What has Alzheimer’s taught me?
I’m not even sure where to start. For one thing, Alzheimer’s has taught me that family is everything. When I was in high school and college, all I really cared about was spending time with my friends. I was always so afraid of missing out on something. I’d say that’s pretty typical for a teenager or someone in their early 20’s. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was 25, so I was just emerging from those young, selfish years when I started slowly losing her. I’ve never had a real mother-daughter relationship with her as an adult. That friendship and understanding that comes along with growing up and realizing that your mom has been right all along. We were just starting to become friends and I was just starting to appreciate her when we all started noticing changes in her. In many ways, it was too late for us to have that mother-daughter friendship that I so crave now. Just as we were starting to build that friendship, our roles quickly began reversing. I’d kill to go back and spend more time with her and the rest of my family before this disease took over our lives. Friends come and go, but family is forever. Family is everything. That is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from this disease.
I’ve also learned to have much more compassion and patience with other people. I’ve always been compassionate and empathetic, but it’s on another level now. I always think about what other people might be going through, even if it’s something that outsiders can’t see. For the first three years of my mom’s diagnosis, I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was struggling immensely and probably acting differently because of it, but no one knew anything about it. You truly never know what other people are going through in their lives. You may think that your problems are bad, but theirs might be so much worse. You should never assume anything about someone you don’t know. The person parking in the handicapped spot might look totally fine to you, but he/she might be suffering from something you can’t see. The cashier at Target who is taking entirely too long and talking entirely too much might suffer from a learning disability, autism, or social anxiety. Maybe this job is helping he/she to get out there and interact with other people in order to overcome some of their struggles. Maybe it’s an older woman who is sad and lonely because she has an empty nest at home and she just needs something to get her out of the house.
My mom was that woman many years ago. She got a job as a cashier at a party store, but she had a really hard time learning how to work the cash register. Her manager was a younger woman and was very rude and impatient with my mom. My mom ended up quitting that job because she felt so anxious and stupid every time she went to work. Looking back, this may have been a very early sign of my mom’s Alzheimer’s; not being able to learn something new. Her manager could have never known this and I’m sure many of us would have probably reacted to my mom the same way she did, but a little bit of empathy and patience with her could have gone a long way. I think about that all the time when I have an older woman ringing up and bagging my groceries. She’s someone’s wife. She’s someone’s mother. She’s someone’s sister or friend. Just be kind and have a little more patience.
Going back to that person parking in the handicapped spot…I refuse to take a parking spot that is anywhere near the entrance to any store. Alzheimer’s has taught me that there are many more people who need that parking spot much more than I do. My legs are fine. I can walk any distance to get into the store. Many others don’t have that luxury. Earlier on in my mom’s disease, I would often take her out to lunch or to the mall to go shopping. We were able to go anywhere because I could park anywhere and we would just take our time walking to the entrance. As her disease progressed, it became more and more difficult to take her out because she couldn’t walk as far without having to sit down and rest. I remember trying to take her out many times and having to leave without even getting out of the car because I couldn’t find a parking spot close enough to the entrance. I knew that if we parked way in the back there was no way she could walk that far without having to sit down. There were so many times that we drove around looking for a spot and ended up having to leave because we couldn’t find one. We didn’t have a handicapped parking tag back then, but even if we did, I don’t think I would have felt right using it because my mom wasn’t physically disabled. She just had a hard time walking that far and needed more time.
My dad eventually got a handicapped parking tag, but even he refused to use it for the longest time. He didn’t feel right about it because he always said that there were so many other people who needed it more than they did. He would just find the closest parking spot and only used a handicapped parking spot if there was absolutely nothing else available. Now, even my husband knows not to park too close to an entrance because I will say that someone else needs that parking spot much more than we do. Think about the daughter who is trying to take her cognitively impaired mom out to lunch. Think about the person who has a hard time getting around, but not hard enough to qualify for a handicapped parking tag. Think about the woman who is 8 months pregnant or the mom who is brave enough to take her toddler and infant out at the same time by herself. Think before you take the closest parking spot available because someone else probably needs it a lot more than you do. And if you’re that person who really needs it, then take it! The rest of us can walk.
I’m sure that I could right a 500-page novel about all of the things that Alzheimer’s has taught me. I’m sure that right after I post this, I will be kicking myself at all of the things I forgot to mention. However, I would say that these are the big things. Spend more time with your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Family is everything. A little bit of compassion, empathy, and patience goes a long way. It might not change the world, but it might change the world for that one person. At the very least, it will brighten someone’s day.
What has Alzheimer’s taught you?